I never thought that being blessed with five grandchildren under the age of five would be the mechanism to refine my taste for chaos. But, today, family events more closely resemble the mosh pit of the Stanford University band taking to the field at halftime than the close order drill approach of The Golden Band from Tigerland (or just about any Division 1 NCAA team). Thank goodness that my fellow DOUGs (Dumb Old Utility Guys/Gals) not only have a tolerance for chaos, they thrive in its midst.
If our industry was all in order, utilities would know how load was developing in their territories. Adequate generation would be planned and developed along with the transmission resources to deliver power to the load. This sort of sounds like those good old days when there was — Dare I even mention it? — a vertically integrated utility.
But that is no more. There is a new normal. Now most utilities exist in some sort of deregulated atmosphere. Mind you, none of the regulators seem to have gone away, but still “they” refer to the situation as having been deregulated. It must be just another example of “government speak” not really quite meaning what it says.
One of the first steps in the deregulation process seems to have been requiring utilities to divest their generation. Transmission is the next item in the portfolio that is deregulated. And, without control of generation and later transmission, the utility is in a position to be whipsawed by whatever whims and fads du jour may come upon the regulators.
One of the motivations for all this deregulation is that the “people” or “consumers” or someone will benefit. As an aside, I have yet to see consumer prices go down with the onset of deregulation. In fact, in a recent presentation by an industry executive from Northern California, who happened to have the term “environmental” in his title, there was practically a brag that his average cost of electricity was 22 cents per kilowatt-hour. I grinned because I live there, too. The folks at my table were aghast. I know rates are not quite that high in Tennessee. This might be okay for executives or politicians, but one wonders if this has really helped the “people.”
This month’s cover story documents American Electric Power responding to a fairly chaotic situation with an almost “it is business as usual” aplomb — as if a live-line reconductoring of two 345-kV lines is an everyday occurrence. Now, this is not to suggest that this project was approached lightly or without the serious attention to safety, which the utility demonstrates in the story; but, it is remarkable how this project team persistently handled the significant hurdles it encountered in a very DOUGly, thorough and workman-like manner.
Kudos to this team!
Utilities in the Electric Reliability Council of Texas have seen many early retirements of conventional energy generation and a considerable increase in renewable energy production. Of course, the retirements are in places with existing transmission, which ties the supply to the load. And, predictably, much of the renewable supply is in less convenient locations. The chaos of having supply not aligned with delivery is exacerbated by having load growth in some areas accelerate at unprecedented rates. Building new transmission was going to take too long to ameliorate the situation. Additionally, the lines that were serving the Lower Rio Grande Valley could not be out of service for considerable periods and still maintain reliability. Therefore, the option of a live reconductor with a high-capacity conductor that would not mechanically challenge the existing structures was implemented. This is an exceptional solution that seems so normal in this story.
Delivering the exceptional as normal is not a totally unusual situation in the electric power industry. It is commonplace at utilities all over the world to find what is now accepted as normal would have been considered as incredible, if it could have been done at all, several years ago.
The quite significant thing is that we at Transmission & Distribution World are proud to be able to persistently display the resourcefulness that our industry brings to work every day. The special supplement in our March issue about how the local utilities responded to Superstorm Sandy is another example of our industry rearing up on its hind legs in the face of incredible adversity and doing much more than just an adequate job.
Each issue of T&D World tells many stories, both in the feature articles and in the Electric Utility Operations section, as well as in our special supplements. So, there are additional kudos to an industry making incredible strides through this chaos that is the new normal.