Focus on the Public Power Engineer: Orlando Utilities Commission

By Kathleen Davis, Associate Editor

Editor’s note: I met Aaron Staley in Atlanta at IEEE’s Power Systems Expo. It was the luck of the industry editor, as I had an upcoming item post-it-noted on my wall that said: need to find public power engineer to interview, a.s.a.p.

After a few minutes of talking with Aaron, I knew I could tear up that little hot pink post-it note.

Staley works as manager of transmission planning and reliability at Orlando Utilities Commission (OUC). We talked in March about his work at OUC, what’s on the utility’s plate, and one very naughty cow.

UAE: Walk us through a typical day for you at the Orlando Utilities Commission. What sort of everyday problems do you tackle as manager of transmission planning and reliability?

Aaron Staley: Usually a day in the office starts with a review of my e-mail, the outage request system and our group’s task list. After looking at those items-and locating a second cup of coffee-our group meets briefly to review what projects we are working on and what the plan for completion is. Then, we dive into the day.

We are always working on one or more transmission system studies to support OUC, the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council (FRCC), a line outage request, or a transmission service request. In addition to that, we are often reviewing a study done by another utility, changes in NERC or FERC rules, and fielding questions from our design engineering or system operation groups.

However, that would be a normal day in the office, which is sometimes quite rare. I regularly meet with other utilities to work on joint projects and studies, participate in an audit, attend a class or conference, and occasionally I’m helping to teach a class. This doesn’t mean the study work ends when you travel, it just means you have to be proficient at working on studies in hotel rooms, Starbucks, and from the back of a meeting room. High power laptops, mobile internet connections, and inter-utility coordination requirements have made this less of an office job and more of an “everywhere” job.

As far as everyday problems, our biggest everyday problem is computers. If someone could invent a PC that did what I wanted it to do, instead of what I asked it to do, that would make life a lot smoother.

UAE: What’s on the OUC’s transmission plate for ’07?

AS: We will be working on re-conductoring part of the McIntosh-Taft 230-kV corridor, and the site preparation for a coal gasification power plant at our Stanton generating facility.

UAE: What does the OUC do to ensure reliability, as your tagline is “The Reliable One”? What sort of steps do you take?

AS: At a transmission planning level, reliability is about preventing widespread outages rather than individual outages. What OUC does at a planning level is look very closely at our transmission system and that of our neighbors to make sure that we are meeting the latest NERC (North America Electric Reliability Corporation) standards. When our studies find a future deficiency, we work with our design engineering group and neighboring utilities to develop solutions that can be constructed prior to the problem actually occurring. We also pay attention to what is going on in the industry nationwide-to see if they are experiencing problems that may not be addressed in the current standards but are worth examination.

When we build a project, we examine the best industry practices available for enhancing the performance of our system, especially those where cost is relatively small for the benefits gained. For example, at all of our 230-kV stations we have redundant high-speed protection and redundant communications links. The cost for this is small relative to the project cost, but is large enough that many companies choose not to install this redundant protection. For OUC, the benefit outweighs the cost. This redundant protection means that we are very unlikely to have a sustained fault on our system or a fault that results in backup protection clearing a larger area of the power grid than necessary. When NERC category C and D testing is done, this difference in design philosophy shows clear benefits.

Generally at OUC the first question we ask is what “should” we build, and, if the price for performance is reasonable, we build it. We don’t look for the lowest cost solution; we look for the solution with the best balance of price and performance.

UAE: Tell our readers about the nuts and bolts that you work with at OUC. How many miles of transmission, distribution? How many substations?

AS: OUC has 32 substations and 377 miles of 230-kV, 115-kV, and 69-kV lines and cables. We are right in the middle of the state transmission grid and have twenty-four 230-kV interconnects and several 115-kV and 69-kV interconnections.

I like to say that our system is the perfect size to learn transmission planning on. We are small enough that you can see all of it on one sheet of paper and visualize it in your mind, but large enough that you can experience a little bit of everything.

UAE: Is there one particular area of the OUC grid that’s a thorn in your side? Why?

AS: Our large number of 230-kV interconnections. We are right in the middle of several utilities, and, in some cases, we have a utility’s generation on one side of our system and their load on another. Our 230-kV system is far more affected by what these other utilities do than our own activities. It is quite challenging to explain to our customers why they are investing in projects that are due to the activities of others. Our 230-kV system was originally built to transport power from our power plants to our load, but now has to handle “parallel” and sometimes direct flows between entities on either side of our system. OUC is, fortunately, not alone in this; it’s a challenge for the entire industry.

UAE: You must have a million interesting stories from the field about outages or interesting people met during calls. Can you tell us one of your favorites?

AS: Well the most interesting outage I worked on was as a distribution engineer for an investor-owned utility-an outage caused by a cow. We had a long distribution primary that served a farm, and one of the guyed structures was in a cow pasture. The cows discovered the guy wire made a really good back scratcher. And, over time, they had stretched the guy wire to where the pole would pull back toward them while they were scratching and then pop forward when they walked out. Well, that caused the wires to shake and sometimes brought the primary and neutral together, followed by the branch fuse operating-and then a call from a very irritated farmer.

We looked at several options, the most tongue-in-cheek being installing an insulator on the guy anchor end and bonding the guy wire to the primary. While creative, we figured it would be a bit of a liability issue and the cow might actually like it and climb under the wire more often. We settled for a far more mundane solution of tightening everything and then installing some short pole segments under the guy wires to prevent the cows from getting under them.

But, my favorite field story involves me. I was a brand new engineer and was sent to stake a pole. (That is were we put a small stake into the ground that eventually grows to be a pole, or, when that fails, a line crew comes out and replaces it with a pole.) Being brand new, I lacked a staking hammer and was told to go to the hardware store and purchase one. So I went to the local hardware store, got a rubber mallet, and headed to the field. Well the first blow from the mallet rebounded into my hard hat. So, after collecting my hat and glasses I decided that it must be me. So, I struck a harder blow. When I again recovered my hat, glasses (and wits) again, I returned to the store and bought a 5-pound sledge hammer.

UAE: What are the differences in working for a public power company as opposed to an investor-owned utility? Advantages? Disadvantages?

AS: Well this is hard to answer, I’ve only worked for one public power company and one investor-owned utility, so my experience is limited. I know that in general the public power company advantages are greater job security and greater focus on service, reliability and direct responsibility to the customers. However, on the down side, you sometimes become involved in city politics, everything you do or say can end up in the newspaper, and the business travel expenses policies are more restrictive.

Now in particular to OUC, there are several advantages over the investor-owned company I worked for. The first-and as a computer geek the closest to my heart-is the excellent IT group we have. Their first priority is getting us the tools we need to do our job, rather then standardizing everything to make their jobs easier. The second is the focus on education and development for their personnel. At OUC, it is very common for engineers to regularly attend professional conferences and courses. Another advantage is that in the last year I have not heard the words “re-organization” or “labor reduction.” It is very refreshing to know that if you focus on your job, your job will be there. As far as disadvantages, I’m still trying to find one.

UAE: Is there one piece of equipment that drives you absolutely crazy, that you wish you could call the manufacturer and tell them how to fix it? If so, how could it be improved?

AS: The software we use for load flow and stability studies is the item that gives us the most trouble. It was created decades ago and has grown over the years from a software package that was run on mainframes via punch cards to today’s version that has a graphical interface and runs on laptops, desktops and servers. The programs are not a cohesive whole, but a collection of packages, options, add-ons and user-written macros. Whenever there is an update to one part of the package-and sometimes when there isn’t-other parts of the package will quit working, behave strangely or just disappear. Half the challenge of this job is learning to use the tools. Basically it’s similar to Microsoft Windows: There is a half dozen ways to do anything and at any given time, some of them might not be working.

But, in the software companies’ defense, it is a small and very diverse market they are serving. There are users who still like the command line, those who use the graphical interface, and those who write code in a dozen different languages to batch execute the software package. The software packages are run on several different platforms and with an assorted variety of licensing schemes. So, given the market, I would say they do a good job balancing the needs of these market segments and keeping the program reasonably priced. In the end, you get what you pay for, and while an easy to use cohesive package would be great, I’m not sure we could afford it.

UAE: In an ideal world with a limitless budget at your disposal, what changes would you make to OUC’s grid system?

AS: Well I’d love to upgrade all of our 69 kV to 115 kV, and much of the 115 kV to 230 kV; while I’m at it, I’ll take the 230 kV to 500 kV and add some “green” distributed generation.

Actually though, I feel like I have a limitless budget, or at least a sufficient budget. OUC is very committed to doing what it takes to maintain reliability, and the budget for that is basically set bottom up. There are many problems and constraints you run into trying to maintain and improve a transmission grid, but budget (at least at OUC) is not one of them.

UAE: What was the most difficult project you’ve tackled at OUC?

AS: Well, I’ve only been with OUC a year, but I’d have to say the FCCS study was the biggest project I have ever participated in. It was a joint study between many utilities in Florida, and, from start to finish, took over a year. At one point during the study, there where 10 planners from across the state sequestered in the FRCC offices in Tampa for a month, working long days to find the best solutions to the region-wide transmission problems. But, that month in Tampa was the easy part; the hard part was then convincing the companies involved to work together and come to agreement on who would build what lines and by when. It was a lot of meetings, a lot of analysis, and a lot of negotiation.

UAE: Do you manage a lot of people, and, if so, what type of personality makes the best T&D employee?

AS: Well, right now, I have one and a half employees, but we have an opening, so soon it will be two and a half.

There are many characteristics that good engineers and good employees have. Good task management, structured thinking, technical knowledge- all of these are common characteristics in my opinion. Assuming you start with someone who is already a good engineer and a good employee, the biggest personality trait for a planner at OUC that will effect their success is interpersonal skills.

You have to build relationships and trust with certain people and groups inside your company and with the planners and management at your neighboring utilities. With the people inside your company, they have to trust you and have confidence it what you are doing, because much of it looks like you are just using a Magic 8 Ball to come up with answers. With the planners at the other utilities, you have to be able to communicate and work together, even if politically your companies are in the midst of a dispute over transmission projects. So being able to build and maintain those relationships and lines of communication are critical to being successful.

UAE: Florida’s Public Service Commission ranks OUC ahead of Florida’s investor-owned utilities in reliability. And, last November, PA Consulting Group named OUC the most reliable electric utility in the Southeast. What’s your secret? What are you doing better than the other guys?

AS: While my title is manager of transmission planning and reliability, the reliability I focus on is bulk power system reliability which is interested in the grid remaining online and stable. The “reliability” that the FPSC and others look at is usually what I call “retail” reliability and relates to keeping customers lit. I cannot really comment on the technical aspects of what OUC does to keep the lights on, but I can comment on the culture. At OUC it is common to ask “what should we do” rather then “what is the least expensive solution.” With this type of culture the only challenges to building a reliable power system are the technical ones.

UAE: Aaron, do you look forward to going to work every day?

AS: Yes.

UAE: What words of wisdom would you give to other public power engineers in your position about how to make the job run smoothly?

AS: My advice would be to build good relationships with all the people and departments your group works with. I work closely with our department’s secretary, and that relationship greatly reduces the administrative burden on our group. We tell her what we want to do-or in some cases what we’ve already done-and she figures out the paperwork, procedures and administrative details. It keeps us focused on the work rather then trying to puzzle out paperwork for expense reimbursement and travel arrangements. This same idea applies to our design engineering group, information technology and system operators. These are groups and individuals who can make our life easier, or make it much more difficult. Building good relationships with these groups can make all the difference in how much time is spent dealing with bureaucracy and how much is spent getting productive work done.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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