thorough analysis of T&D system required to prevent future blackouts

Bill Martino, Cooper Power Systems

Much of the initial public discussion about the causes of the August 14 outage has been centered on the grid’s transmission capabilities. A number of organizations, including DV2010, a national consortium of electric utility companies formed to implement new technologies to improve distribution system reliability, are urging industry insiders to consider the synergistic roles transmission and distribution systems play in a reliable power delivery system.

Bob Huber, chairman of DV2010, is concerned that focusing solely on transmission grid improvements will not fully assure service reliability to the homes and businesses dependent on electricity.

Furthermore, a great deal of improvement can be made at the distribution level relatively quickly and affordably, utility-by-utility. In fact, many utilities have successfully used products such as reclosers, fuses, relays, arresters, capacitors, and automation devices to prevent outages and minimize the impact when they do occur. On the other hand, partial deregulation of the industry has created an economic environment where ROI often cannot be achieved. This situation discourages utilities from upgrading distribution systems, increasing their risk. This scenario needs to change.

A thorough distribution system analysis is perhaps the most effective and immediate action utilities can take to identify, quantify, and prioritize ways to improve reliability.

how much reliability does a utility need?

Equipped with such a distribution system analysis, a utility can make important decisions to balance desired levels of reliability with the cost of achieving this level.

The “9s of reliability” are a common utility benchmark. Three nines (99.9) percent availability reflects approximately eight hours of combined outages per year. Increasing reliability to nine nines (99.9999999 percent) results in virtually no outages (.03 seconds per year). While ideal, the cost of achieving this is prohibitive. Therefore, utilities must consider: (1) how much reliability is needed, (2) how much can they afford, (3) what is this level of reliability worth to their customers and (4) how much are their customers willing to pay for it.

As utilities move to address reliability issues they can’t lose sight of the importance of clean power. Today’s quality of life requires an increasing dependence (at our factories and at our homes) on electronic and microprocessor technology. This technology is more sensitive to voltage quality. The ironic twist: it is also a source of many power quality problems. To compensate, utilities can tap into a wide variety of custom power equipment designed to resolve voltage quality issues from distortions to long-term outages.

How does a utility decide what to do and where to increase reliability of the distribution system, while addressing power quality issues? A systematic approach that balances desired levels of both against equipment and maintenance costs is needed. To be cost effective, this approach should begin by incrementally using traditional equipment and designs as much as possible. Then, custom power equipment, including local generation, can be added to satisfy individual load requirements. Since it’s important to quantify and cost-justify decisions along the way, tools to predict reliability performance are essential in the planning process.

Will this approach result in a nine-nine level of reliability? Probably not. Nor should it, since not all loads on a given system will require this level of reliability. However, the resulting power system will be cost-effective, defensible and key to customer satisfaction. The level of reliability will be matched to customer needs according to the customer’s ability to cost justify the service.

Much has been said about the August 14 power outage highlighting deficiencies in our electrical grid. The problems are real, and the issue is serious. Our lifestyles, our economy and our national security demand a reliable transmission and distribution system. But, let’s not lose sight of one key fact. This was the first major blackout in 45 years. Overall, a pretty good track record: One that tells us we have the time and the opportunity to make informed decisions that cost-effectively improve reliability one utility at a time.

Martino is president of Cooper Power Systems. He can be reached at 262-896-2393.

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