Reliability is coming under increased utility scrutiny now that the generation, transmission and distribution business units are encouraged to stand on their own. With generation becoming competitive, regulators have shifted their focus to T&D, and with good reason. Some major utilities and utility-holding companies, disappointed with fixed returns from the wires business, have shifted their focus to generation and other unregulated businesses, leaving power-delivery units to scrape and scrimp for funds.

We've already seen the results of neglecting T&D infrastructure. Over the past five years, several utilities, including ComEd and Entergy, suffered major reliability glitches. Howling customers have prompted legislators and regulators to take action. As a result, today we are seeing the industry move to reliability-based regulation.

Cheryl Warren, a principal with Navigant Consulting, recently completed a review of state regulatory reliability activity. In her paper “Reliability on the Regulatory Horizon,” presented at the October 2001 IEEE/PES T&D show, Warren reports that 27 states in the United States have reliability standards in place, versus only three in 1996. Regulations are pending in an additional six states. Twenty-one states require reliability levels to be monitored and reported, while 11 states now have penalties and awards for performance. Eight states now enforce performance standards.

We've all heard the axiom, “You get what you measure.” But let's be careful here. Utilities must be cautious when comparing outage duration and outage frequency data with other utilities. The methodology can even vary from division to division within the same utility. And now, as utilities tie bonuses to hitting reliability targets, there is more than a little pressure to make the numbers work.

Data collecting and record tracking is no trivial matter. Utilities that depend on customer call center data will record fewer outages than utilities tracking power outages through automated meter reading systems. Utilities that get together to compare reliability records often realize they are trying to compare apples and oranges. Of course, this creates problems for both utilities and regulators. Regulators are trying to reward utilities for better service but often find that the methods of measurement vary from one utility to another. It gets ugly.

Here is an interesting scenario. If your regulator intends to require performance-based ratemaking in a couple of years, do you really want to invest in upgrading your distribution circuits now? You will be held to the higher standard later. Utilities would rather wait until they know the rules under which they would be penalized or rewarded before deciding what steps to take to improve reliability.

Likewise, utilities installing outage management systems want the assurance that they will not be penalized if better measuring techniques result in higher outage numbers. Utilities and regulators need to get on the same page and head in the same direction when it comes to reliability measures. Regulators are as interested in accurate data as we are.

In New York, the Public Service Commission (PSC) implemented an emergency reporting system that enables the state to decide how to allocate resources. GIS-based maps and reports, driven partially by utility outage reporting systems, are presently available. Some utilities in the state do not have on-line outage systems and are struggling to find ways to provide the information the state requires. The state needs accurate information as it tries to balance reliability, power quality and costs.

I recently spoke with Michael Worden, principal engineer with the New York PSC who reviews utility plans that address reliability. He sees utilities initiate programs that would positively impact reliability if followed through on, but he sees customers lose out when utilities shift directions without reaping the benefits of earlier actions. Worden also acknowledges that reporting requirements now vary significantly from state to state. Worden would like to see national reporting standards, but at the same time, does not want to see initiatives stymied that are now underway in New York.

In the western United States, PacifiCorp knows the difficulty in incident reporting. When the company implemented a sophisticated automated outage tracking and monitoring system, outage numbers increased, skewing the numbers. Today, with accurate reliability numbers, PacifiCorp can more easily monitor its progress as it addresses five-year goals to:

  • Improve SAIDI (System Average Interruption Duration Index) and SAIFI (System Average Interruption Frequency Index) numbers by 10%

  • Improve MAIFI (Momentary Average Interruption Frequency Index) numbers by 5%

  • Improve the reliability of the five worst feeders by 20% each year for five years.

Reliability issues are here to stay. I applaud PacifiCorp for its efforts to make its numbers meaningful. Customers can only gain when utilities and regulators get on the same reliability page.