Today’s electric utilities are challenged with handling numerous conflicting issues. Infrastructure is aging and reliability requirements are changing just as utilities are trying to control costs. Added to that, utilities must handle operational uncertainties while simultaneously satisfying non-static regulatory agency requirements. All of this can be a daunting balancing act. But, inject a sudden influx of new substations that increases assets to be managed and operated by 350%, and things get really complicated, really fast.

In 2012, People’s Electric Cooperative (PEC) acquired 15 distribution substations and the radial transmission taps from Western Farmers Electric Cooperative. Prior to the acquisition, PEC owned six substations and 30 miles (48 km) of transmission lines. Therefore, the acquisition radically increased the substation portion of PEC assets, creating a massive technical and management challenge.

PEC’s asset expansion normally would result in a commensurate growth in support staff and management. Instead, the cooperative is relying on its current staff of skilled field journeymen and technicians to navigate the expansion successfully. The goal was to manage the increase in asset inventory of 3.5 and not increase staff requirements. Realization of this goal started with an immediate review of technology options.

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A Relationship with Technology

Asset management seeks to stabilize and balance performance, cost and risk. Achieving this equilibrium requires the alignment of corporate goals, management decisions and technical decisions. PEC has consistently used technology to simplify operations.

In the early 1990s, the cooperative installed full supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) capabilities in all of its substations, including those owned by its power supplier. This was long before the term “smart grid” was such a buzzword in the cooperative market or the utility industry as a whole.

The SCADA implementation included both hardwired and fiber-optic status, telemetry and control of all substation reclosers and voltage regulation, in addition to monitoring of transformer alarms, metering accumulators and instantaneous metering values at the substation and feeder level. As a fuse-saving measure, control algorithms were developed to reprogram the recloser controls for fast-trip capability when storms approached. The appropriate upgrades have been applied to keep up with current technology.

With the introduction of Microsoft Windows 95, PEC installed laptop computers in its maintenance and construction vehicles. Updated customer information and maps of the distribution system were downloaded on a scheduled basis, allowing field access to this information along with other important cooperative-supplied information regarding procedures and specifications. Today, more current and technologically advanced data is transmitted to the Windows 7 truck laptops on a real-time basis through a radio link. Service orders are assigned, received and completed by radio link while the vehicle location information is displayed on a distribution system map within the dispatch center.

PEC recently completed an asset identification project that provided geographic information system (GIS) identification and location information for all infrastructures in the field such as poles, units attached to the poles and wire. Every pole is numbered with a unique identifier in the field, which is tied to the particular information about that pole. The information electronically attached to the pole includes pole height, class, framing, span footages, conductor size and other pertinent information. This allows staking to be accomplished electronically for any existing structure in addition to an accurate, current field inventory.

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In 2010, PEC contracted with NewSpin to develop a photographic virtual tour for each PEC substation. Dispatch personnel now have a visual record that allows them to see exactly what field personnel see in a particular substation. In addition to a 360-degree view of the substation, close-up pictures of the nameplates of the equipment and control panels are accessible with a zoom feature so the finest detail can be read. Equipment details such as model number and rating are specified inside links posted within the 360-degree view. This technology puts dispatch personnel and field technicians on the same page, avoiding any miscommunication.

Assets such as poles, capacitor banks, padmounted transformers and vaults are mapped on an integrated GIS application. This information is used to group, assign and coordinate service issues to area crews. This prevents sending resources to a service call when other issues needing service are in the immediate vicinity, thus saving the distribution services department time and reducing the need for increased manpower.

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