Utility Automation & Engineering T&D Looks Back on its First Decade

By Steven M. Brown, editor in chief

With this issue, Utility Automation & Engineering T&D (formerly Utility Automation) begins its 10th year of publication. During that relatively short period of time, the magazine has undergone a number of changes-from supplement to stand-alone publication, from a broad-based “pan-utility” magazine covering automation across electric, gas and water utilities to a magazine focused fairly strictly on electric power automation, and finally from a magazine focused strictly on automation technologies to one that takes a broader view of the entire interconnected electric transmission and distribution system.

As we begin our 10th year covering utility technology, we stop to take a quick look back at our publication’s beginnings and some of the major business, regulatory and technical issues that have shaped not only the electric utility industry but also the maturation of this magazine.

Utility Automation, as this magazine was originally known, actually began publishing in 1995 as a semi-annual supplement to Electric Light & Power magazine, but its origins go back to at least 1993 with its publisher’s acquisition of a company called CSR Market Research. When PennWell Corp. acquired CSR-later to become PennWell Research-it also acquired the services of Mike Smith, who would become the publisher of Utility Automation‘s first stand-alone issue.

Smith recounts that it became evident early on in his career at PennWell that there was a potential market for a publication focused specifically on utility automation technologies-the market in which CSR had its expertise. Journals like Electric Light & Power-also a PennWell publication-and others had covered the power business for decades, but none covered the specific automation, control and IT niche that this new magazine would. After months of internal deliberation over the likelihood of success for such a publication, a business plan was written and the concept for a magazine called Utility Automation was unveiled at the DistribuTECH Conference and Exhibition in 1995. The publishers were certain that an audience existed for the journal; the biggest question at this point became: Would a sufficient number of advertisers be interested in supporting it?

“We made up a mock magazine with 16 blank pages on it to take to DistribuTECH, and said to people, basically, “ËœYour name could be here,'” Smith said. “We sold 14 or 15 ad pages before DistribuTECH was over and a few more shortly after.”

On the strength of that positive initial response, Utility Automation was first published as a supplement to Electric Light & Power magazine in the summer of 1995. A second supplement soon followed in the fall. The supplements broadly covered automation technologies across water, gas and electric utilities, both in North America and internationally. The first supplement weighed in at 36 pages, the second topped 60 pages, and both were well-supported by advertising. Armed with this successful proof of concept, Utility Automation was launched as a stand-alone publication at DistribuTECH 1996.

“I think the industry really liked having a voice-a publication with this specific focus,” Smith said.

Under the early guidance of editorial director Bob Smock and such editors as Wayne Beatty, Michael Marullo and Jerry Locsin, the magazine’s subject matter and its circulation spanned across electric, gas and water utilities. The primary areas of coverage were SCADA systems and AM/FM/GIS technologies. Automatic meter reading was a technology just beginning to receive wider acceptance and became a part of the editorial mix early on in Utility Automation. Distribution automation and substation automation were also parts of the core subject matter from the beginning.

The first stand-alone issue of Utility Automation in January/February 1996 was a 68-pager and included coverage of DistribuTECH 1996, Latin American SCADA implementations, the Asian power market, geographic information system investment strategies, technology migration and more. The issue included 10 feature articles, several shorter columns and 34 advertisers (see sidebar, page 18).

The magazine has made forays over the years into covering customer information systems, home automation, energy trading, e-commerce and other technologies, but SCADA, GIS, AMR, distribution automation and substation automation have remained the core areas of coverage to this day.

While never straying far from its focus on technology, Utility Automation and, later, Utility Automation & Engineering T&D have by necessity always covered major business and regulatory trends in the utility industry. These trends often drive developments in technology, and, conversely, developments in technology occasionally drive business and regulatory changes.

Right from the start in 1995 and 1996, the subject of electric utility deregulation was mentioned in nearly every editorial piece published in Utility Automation. Whether it was an article on automatic meter reading, demand-side management, SCADA systems, geospatial technologies, substation automation or any other utility technology, most articles published in the first few years of Utility Automation opened with a phrase referring to the “new competitive markets” or the “dawn of the deregulated age.”

And, at least for the first couple of years, articles and editorial commentaries that mentioned deregulation did so in a positive and hopeful light. Industry restructuring, it was thought, would drive technological innovation and spur investment on the power delivery side of the utility business. It would be a boon for technology in the utility business and, as a result, a boon for Utility Automation magazine as well.

That was the mood as long as discussion of a restructured, deregulated industry were based mostly on theory and conjecture. When the rubber hit the road in California around the turn of the century, however, the mood changed (see sidebar, page 20). The failed experiment with deregulation in California sent shockwaves through the industry that are still being felt to this day. The tone of articles that mentioned deregulation turned from hopeful to fearful. The change in mood was perhaps best summed up in a March 2000 editorial written by former managing editor Teresa Hansen.

Hansen wrote: “Deregulation and competition have been touted as the best thing since sliced bread for electricity consumers. But ” there has definitely been a downside to competition, and in some areas of the country consumers have already seen that downside. Unfortunately, the cost cutting and downsizing that has occurred in utilities in the name of competition, has in many cases hit the departments responsible for power systems operation much too hard. In some utilities, individuals are now expected to maintain existing systems on reduced budgets with fewer people. They are often expected to “Ëœfix’ broken equipment rather than replace it, operate equipment beyond its expected life span, and maintain system performance with more time between scheduled maintenance dates.

“” in many cases, the budget and staff cuts have taken a toll,” Hansen continued. “Whether utilities have simply cut budgets to keep their rates down or have directed the money to other areas, such as customer service and billing, to make themselves more attractive to customers, power system reliability has suffered.”

In step with the general utility industry consensus, deregulation-at least as it manifested itself in California-was no longer celebrated in the pages of Utility Automation.

Disaster-whether the fear of pending disaster or the reaction to actual disaster-has been a recurrent topic in this publication over the course of its 10-year existence. Given that this magazine has “power reliability” as one of its predominant themes, widespread power and technology failures will always grab the headlines. Two of the most prominent “disasters” reported in Utility Automation‘s first decade were the year 2000 situation and the 2003 blackout.

Utility Automation was ahead of the curve in over-reacting to the potential for a Y2K crisis. In an article titled “Will the World End at 12:01, Jan. 1, 2000?” in the March/April 1997 issue, an author cautioned that when computers tried to process a “00” year, “Some programs will crash. Some will create countless error conditions. Worst of all, some will just cause erroneous results that may not be readily detected.

“As the days tick by,” the author continued, “the problem of Year 2000 compliance becomes more and more critical. Utilities must take decisive action now to ensure their survival into the 21st century. In any case, expect the post New Year’s hangover to last long into the next century.”

Apparently everyone prepared well for Y2K, and disaster was averted. Very little was written about Y2K after Jan.1, 2000.

Years later, real disaster struck the electric power industry when on the afternoon of Aug. 14, 2003, generating unit trips and widespread transmission line disconnections across the upper Midwest, the Northeast and parts of Canada culminated in the blackout of 2003.

In a September/October 2003 article, Utility Automation described the event and predicted its long-lasting impacts thusly:

“Thousands of New Yorkers (spilled) into the streets for a long, dark walk home from work while the rest of the nation watched on cable news networks and gave thanks for the wonders of air conditioning and incandescent light bulbs. That four-hour sequence of events, beginning shortly after noon and ending about 4:13 p.m., could shape regulatory, financial and technological developments in electric power delivery for years to come.”

The 2003 blackout became to early 21st century Utility Automation & Engineering T&D articles what deregulation was to late 20th century Utility Automation articles, coloring nearly every article printed for the next several issues. If an article didn’t mention the blackout outright, it at least made mention of the power grid’s shortcomings that were exposed by the blackout. Improvements made in response to the blackout will likely be prominent article subjects in this publication’s second decade.

Utility Automation & Engineering T&D has undergone numerous subtle transformations during its first 10 years. Originally a supplement to Electric Light & Power magazine, Utility Automation quickly became a magazine capable of standing on its own. Originally a magazine that covered automation technology across all utilities-electric, gas and water-the magazine has sharpened its editorial focus and circulation to become primarily an electric power delivery publication. Originally a magazine with an international scope, it has become one focused on the North American market.

The most recent transformation came in late 2003 when, with its November/December 2003 issue, Utility Automation magazine became Utility Automation & Engineering T&D magazine. The lengthened name was intended to signify another subtle expansion of the magazine’s editorial content. What had been a magazine predominately focused on automation and information technology in use on the distribution system would broaden its scope to include the entire power delivery system-from the generating plant switchyard to the customer meter. And while IT, automation technology and control systems would still make up the bulk of the editorial content, the publication would now branch out to discuss innovations in the equipment and hardware that those systems were meant to support.

For those whose sense of nostalgia has been stirred, every issue of Utility Automation and Utility Automation & Engineering T&D is archived at www.utility-automation.com.

Through its first 10 years, Utility Automation & Engineering T&D has kept its focus on innovation in the power delivery business. No doubt the magazine will continue to evolve in the years ahead just as the utility industry does, but technology and innovation will always remain the common themes. ௣à¯£

Advertisers from Utility Automation¿s First Issue in 1996

Although it’s been a relatively short time since Utility Automation began publishing, a lot has changed in the vendor community. The following is a list of companies that advertised in the first stand-alone issue of Utility Automation. Some have stayed; some have gone; some have changed names. For nostalgia’s sake, they are presented here.
ABB Power T&D Co.
Advanced Control Systems
Alligator Communications
Arga Controls
BJ Software Systems
Cyme International
DAP Technologies
Dieterich Standard
G&W Electric Co.
Japan Digital Laboratory(JDL
Valmet Automation

A Brief Love Affair with Deregulation

Utility Automation commented on the prospects of power industry deregulation right from the start, and in the early days, most of the comments were positive and hopeful. But how quickly the mood changed, as is evidenced in these clippings from the early days of this publication.

“Based on the … experience of other industries during times of deregulation, we can confidently expect the following scenario to emerge in the utility industry-a major reduction in prices, a rapid decline in the ratio of long-term to short-term contracts, a proliferation of new products and services, an increase in mergers and acquisitions, and global expansion.”

“The Forces of Change: Technology and Deregulation,” by Ed White, Utility Translation Systems, Vol. 1, No. 7, November/December 1996.

“Enron Corp. recently offered California consumers two weeks of free electricity and electric rates 10 percent lower than in 1997. According to an Enron spokesman, the company is positioning itself to help Californians make the most of the opportunity presented to them as residents of the nation’s first state to deregulate the electricity marketplace. This is just the beginning ” this trend will inevitably spread to other states as deregulation becomes a reality.”

“Customer Service Takes Center Stage as Competition Emerges,” by Teresa Hansen, Vol. 3, No. 1, January/February 1998.

“Market forecasters expect retail deregulation to spread across the country over the next five years, following closely on the heels of the wholesale trade.

“Retail Choices Hinge on Technology” By John Boucher, Landis & Gyr Utilities Services, Vol. 3, No. 1, January/February 1998.

“” Shames, who leads a consumer protection group concerned with utility deregulation, ” does not believe small businesses and consumers will benefit from California’s deregulation plan. He is concerned that some of the service providers’ deceptive advertising has misled consumers. ” He also believes very little profit margin will exist under California’s plan “”

“DistribuTECH Focuses on the Future,” By Steven Wood, Vol. 3, No. 2, March/April 1998.

“I am writing this editorial on the first full day of direct access operation in California. ” While I certainly believe the level of competition is intense, I am not so sure that’s going to be so good for customers, at least not initially. ” While direct access is touted as being a wonderful thing for electricity consumers-caveat emptor.”

“From the Editor,” by Teresa Hansen, Vol. 3, No. 3, May/June 1998.

“There has definitely been a downside to competition. Unfortunately, the cost cutting and downsizing that has occurred in utilities in the name of competition, has in many cases hit the departments responsible for power systems operation much too hard. ” They are often expected to “fix” broken equipment rather than replace it, operate equipment beyond its expected life span, and maintain system performance with more time between scheduled maintenance dates.”

“From the Editor,” by Teresa Hansen, Vol. 5, No. 2, March 2000.

Bold Predictions: Some Hits, Some Misses

The future is never easy to predict, particularly when it comes to predicting the future of technology. In the early issues of this magazine, some bold and not-so-bold predictions were made. Looking in retrospect, many of those predictions came true, but quite a few either missed the mark entirely or underestimated technological innovations. Compiled here are a few of the more entertaining predictions made in the early days of Utility Automation .

“It’s safe to say that the “Ëœglory days’ of utility engineers and executives hop-scotching around from one event to another, punctuated by golf games and tennis matches in exotic places, are just about over.”

“A Case for Co-location,” by Michael Marullo, Vol. 1, No. 1, January/February 1996.

“” The average Web user is a professional, college-educated 36-year-old with an average income of $50,000 to $60,000, who browses the Web at least once a day. However there are predictions that everyone in the world will be on the Internet by the turn of the century.”

“Utilities on the Internet,” by Deanna C. Toy, Pacific Gas & Electric, Vol. 1, No. 6, September/October 1996.

“On 01-01-2000, computers ” will attempt to process a “00” year. Some programs will crash. Some will create countless error conditions. Worst of all, some will just cause erroneous results that may not be readily detected. ” In any case, expect the post New Year’s hangover to last long into the next century.”

“Will the World End at 12:01, Jan. 1, 2000?” by Maggie Macary, Costello & Associates, Vol. 2, No. 2, March/April 1997.

“Recent trials on a new technology, allowing data to be transferred over electricity power lines into the home, have been successfully completed and the technology is now ready to be deployed in volume. ” It enables data to be transferred at speeds of over 1 megabit per second-up to 10 times faster than ISDN, currently the fastest generally available speed for domestic users.”

“Technology Breakthrough could Open New Wave of Internet Growth,” from staff reports, Vol. 2, No. 7, November/December 1997.

“When the California ISO control center goes live, utilities will be assured to have the power they need anytime, anywhere.”

“Nation’s First Purpose-built ISO Prepares to go Online,” by Ed Riley, California ISO, and Ric Laycock, Mauell Corp., Vol. 3, No. 1, January/February 1998.

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