There seems to be a growing governmental and ratepayer awareness that possibly our utility infrastructure is more vulnerable to calamity than it ought to be. But do utilities agree?
We can get more innovative and assertive in our stewardship of the public trust, or we can have politicians and regulators managing our engineering departments and control rooms.
Some electric utilities recently hit by super-storm Sandy have come under heavy criticism for both storm preparation and storm-caused outage response. New York Governor Cuomo wants heavier utility regulation and has suggested that the Long Island Power Authority, LIPA, be privatized - a move that would place the utility under tighter regulation. And it’s more than just talk. The Moreland Commission set up by Cuomo to investigate utilities' performance during and right after the October 2012 storm has, in addition to recommending privatization of LIPA, also recommended much bigger fines for utilities that underperform.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Governor didn’t mince words: "LIPA was flawed from inception, there's nothing you can do with the existing structure."
The article went on: “The commission also recommended lowering the ‘burden of proof’ required to fine a utility for poor performance, from the current standard, which requires proving the utility committed a ‘knowing’ violation, to a ‘reasonable business’ standard. That would mean utilities must show they did everything within their power to perform their duties, short of materially hurting their business.”
There’s no question that heroic line crews did the best they could under the worst conditions imaginable, including threats from enraged customers. For the most part, outage management and other smart grid technology functioned as it should until completely overwhelmed by area-wide outage. It was the basic physical infrastructure--the poles, wires and submerged transformers and switchgear--that catastrophically failed under the storm deluge of wind and rain.
On the West Coast, a 100-mph windstorm in 2011 knocked out power to some 440,000 Southern California Edison (SCE) customers, some for as long as a week. Among other damage, 248 poles were broken. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) had previously found that some of the pole and guy wire structures were built below standards. Now the CPUC has issued a report critical of the utility’s preparedness and it’s response during the emergency. Complaints to the CPUC showed that customers were further irritated because SCE couldn’t or wouldn’t let them know when the power might be restored.
But all this is only the tip of the iceberg. Sure, Sandy was the worst storm in at least 100 years. But there was also Katrina which knocked out power across states. Southern California’s damaging Santa Ana winds aren’t uncommon. And many much smaller storms can cause numerous, often long term outages. When these calamities strike we all get to see the results for days or weeks on TV news. No wonder the general public perception is that storms are getting worse every year, debatably due to climate change.
So, no doubt, electric utilities are going to get much heavier scrutiny. The question will keep popping up: Have we done our best in terms of construction to withstand potential storm damage? Given that, at the distribution level anyway, the basic structural line design hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, can’t we do better? Are we really saying that the industry that won the National Academy of Engineering award for the greatest achievement of the 20th century, the electric grid, can’t come up with designs to withstand 100-year storms? And do it in a way that the passed-on costs are acceptable to ratepayers?
Surprisingly, the recent reader poll results show that a large percentage of readers think we have done enough. About half of those responding so far think that we generally optimized infrastructure design on a benefit/cost basis.
I don’t buy that. Or, I should say I don’t think that we actually know what the benefit/cost of any particular design is, or even how to actually go about determining it.
As it stands, we’re in danger of either looking smug or unconcerned or even incompetent. Why don’t we take the initiative and go to customers and find out how much of a rate increase they’d be willing to accept if it meant less outage frequency and/or outage time? Give them our best shot at the numbers and I bet we’d be surprised – particularly in those areas recently hit.
The alternative to taking the lead is to have teams of consultants, managed by bureaucrats and possibly paid through utility fines, managing our industry through our regulators.
Haven’t taken the reader poll yet? Register your vote and/or comments.