Out…But Safe

by Paul Hull, Utility Products contributing editor

We are all customers. We expect what we purchase to work, whether it’s a car, cell phone, dress, TV, computer or power for our homes and businesses.

When a purchase or service does not work as we expect, we are annoyed. At first, that is. If the causes of failure are beyond the ability of the provider to control, we are less annoyed. If we must vacate our hotel room because another guest started a fire, we are less annoyed with the hotel management than with the people who started the fire. It’s the same with our power. If the outage is caused by a natural phenomenon such as a hurricane, an ice storm or violent weather of any sort, customers are more understanding.

Customers sympathize with utilities that must repair and reinstate transmission and distribution after a natural attack such as a storm. If my whole neighborhood is out of power, it’s more acceptable than if my house is the only one affected. There are different levels of outage, as far as customers are concerned. I have spoken with consumers who said power companies should be able to provide exactly what they—the customers—want, when they want it, and at a price as close to free as possible. And there are utility professionals who say all the solutions are in consumers’ hands; they must change their demands and lifestyles. Much of the underlying perception on all sides of preventing outages seems to assume that somebody else should be doing something about it. One of the greatest fears is that decisions to solve power supply problems will be become so political that they are solved by people who know nothing about power provision.

The reasons for an outage are seldom made to look simple, possibly because the media constantly pressure us to blame somebody for everything. Remember the power failures several years ago—2003, wasn’t it? (See how soon we forget major issues?) The aspect of the power failures that irritated most people was that, somehow, a lack of accountability emerged. Among those listed as responsible (apart from the electric utilities involved) were regional transmission organizations (RTOs), the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), independent system operators (ISOs), state public utilities or public services commissions and regional reliability councils. It remains unclear where the lines of responsibility overlap or overrule. Are we sure even now who was responsible then or who is responsible now for the prevention of recurrences? Add to that list of responsible parties the electric utilities themselves, which have the responsibility of delivering electric power to us all. Should the public utilities commissions of our states be more powerful and active? Who should enforce national reliability standards? What sanctions should be demanded of those who do not try to improve our systems?

There are different levels of outage, as far as customers are concerned. Photo courtesty of PSO.

Most utility professionals agree that our transmission systems never were intended to take the stresses imposed on them during the past decade or so. The deregulation in many states might have encouraged the transfer of power in bulk from one part of the country to another using an electric grid that was not designed for such a job. The overloading of transmission lines is still seen as a serious problem. The electric grid originally was designed to handle mostly local requirements, not bulk transfers from state to state or region to region (such as Ohio to Michigan to New York—states that really are not neighbors).

There have been regular, positive results of the interconnections in our electric grid, but they tend to be forgotten when a problem in Ohio can cause problems in Michigan, New York and Canada. Should one utility be able to inflict its problems on those of another in another state or province? Who should monitor and supervise that? An issue usually neglected or forgotten is that after the 2004 summer blackout, fossil fuel and nuclear plants did not come back online quickly. They can’t. At the same time it was reported that wind and hydroelectric plants returned to service quickly as soon as grid safety was confirmed. Planning for our future must also address the fuels we use, the power sources for our power sources.

During the Outage

When my home power stops, my first reaction is that it’s only me and everybody else is probably OK. That’s most people’s first reaction. When it’s clear, from looking out the window, that all my neighbors have lost power, I am relieved. A householder does not want to be the only one with faulty equipment, in part because it means he or she might have to fork out his or her own money to remedy the situation. A neighborhood outage is, in some ways, easier for a utility to explain and control than a single problem. If anything, the crews that repair downed lines after a summer or winter storm are welcomed and admired. They are not a cause of grief for the utility involved. If there is muttering among customers, it’s usually because somebody in one part of the community always seems to get better, faster treatment than others. If that is a valid complaint, change it. If the residents of Buckingham Square and Winchester Place seem to get priority over the householders on the South Side, across the railroad tracks, on Lincoln and Grant Streets, that will cause negative reaction. When there is an outage, every customer is a customer. Nobody minds if the hospital gets preferential treatment, but nothing personal should be involved ever.

Have you checked your readiness situation lately? The easiest way to be prepared for outages, big and small, is to be prepared. The right vehicles and tools should be available, and everybody likely to be involved should know where they are. If the outage is bigger than anticipated, you should know where to get the necessary extra help. Utilities are respected especially for their willingness and ability to help each other in crises. For utility workers, having the right tools available is vital, but good communications might be a forgotten secret to successful work, communications with customers, if necessary, and also communications with the people at the utility office who are organizing the repair schedule. In all communications between field and office, both parties must know what they are talking about.

“At all levels, the people communicating should know what they are talking about,” is a comment I’ve heard from experienced professionals in the electric power, CATV and telephone utility sectors.

“Just because the accountant or purchasing manager says he knows all about the technology doesn’t mean he is the best person to issue instructions to field operatives,” was another observation from people in field and office communications. In any organization there is a chain of command, and there are also experts for every facet of the business. For utility emergency and outage communications, sender and receiver must be experts in the field and operations involved. This might be more important now than it was five years ago. More people think they are technology experts because they own the latest instruments for sending and receiving messages, but the tools are only part of the communication equation.

The well-prepared utility can cope with outages and similar emergencies with ease and efficiency. It seems that, while all utilities dislike outages and emergencies, most are prepared to handle them. Customers appreciate that. When the lights go out, we know it won’t be long before they are back on again.

A final word should be safety. Ours is an industry that promotes and supports safe procedures. Outages are a good time to re-emphasize this to our customers.

“Don’t touch anything!” would be a good slogan to give customers before the outage season begins. Fallen wires that sizzle frighten most people, but they might intrigue children. It wouldn’t hurt to visit schools and tell schoolchildren of all ages that any fallen wires during or after an outage should be left alone.

“Keep away! Don’t touch! Stay alive!”

Paul Hull is a contributing editor for Utility Products magazine, http://utilityproducts.com.

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