Electric utility professionals often face similar issues, challenges and opportunities across North America. By coming together for the 2012 Transmission Maintenance and Management Association (TDMMA) conference in September in Winnipeg, Canada, more than 120 utility professionals were able to brainstorm solutions to industrywide problems and expand their network of contacts.

For example, Brent Bell, a senior patrolman at Southern California Edison (SCE), gained a lot of valuable insight by sitting in on the sessions and open forum workshops. His company is working toward hot sticking and doing barehand for extra high voltage, and he attended the event to try to learn from other utilities doing this type of work.

“There's a lot of camaraderie and a lot of dialogue,” he said. “I've met people from all over the United States and Canada, and they are all experiencing some of the same issues as I am.”

As utilities gear up for 2013, they're trying to find ways to improve productivity and enhance safety. Here are 10 trends that sparked discussion in the TDMMA conference's open forums, panel sessions, networking events and technical tour. While crew chiefs, utility executives and engineers often brought up these topics, they will also impact linemen, substation technicians and other field professionals in 2013.

1. Learn about your utility's plan for upgrading infrastructure. As many linemen know, the power infrastructure in North America is aging, and it's getting to the point where utilities need to replace and upgrade poles, lines and equipment, or risk power outages. Many electric utilities have predominately wood poles, and over the years, these assets can be susceptible to wood rot, woodpecker holes and other damage. Daryl Chipman from the Salt River Project (SRP) discussed how his company's engineers and field professionals are tracking data related to wood pole inspections.

The keynote address also zoned in on this issue. Scott Thomson, the new CEO of Manitoba Hydro, said his company plans to invest $20 billion over the next 10 years in new generation and infrastructure.

Manitoba Hydro currently has 1 million poles in service, and 150,000 of those poles were installed between 1945 and 1960. In addition, some of the substations will need to be refurbished to meet today's standards.

“The generation and transmission system installed decades ago are aging, and they are significantly more costly to maintain,” Thomson said. “Across Canada, more than $350 billion will need to be invested over the next 20 years. Here, we need to spend $500 to $600 million annually to maintain the reliability of our existing infrastructure.”

On this front, the utility just connected power to a new 200-MW generating station by partnering with Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation on the project. In addition, the utility is exploring a new transmission line to connect to U.S. utilities and plans to add new generating stations on the Nelson River.

Thomson said the company is entering into a “decade of investment” with new hydro plants and infrastructure renewal.

“I can't think of a better time than now to invest in the future due to the low interest rates,” Thomson said. “Even if the future won't hold out exactly how we had planned, I can't accept a future where customers hit the light switch and nothing happens.”

2. Discover how other utilities are going green. More utilities are tying into wind farms and large-scale photovoltaic projects and deriving electricity from renewable sources, such as hydropower.

For example, Manitoba Hydro's electricity rates are among the lowest in North America, and 98% of that electricity is produced with clean, renewable hydropower generated at 15 stations. The company currently has agenerating capacity of 5,500 MW, but plans to expand it to 7,700 MW. The electric use is growing by 80 MW of peak demand annually, and the utility will need additional capacity by 2020 through its development plan, hydro generation and access to outside markets.

In addition to using hydropower, the utility is also helping to conserve the environment in other ways. For example, Manitoba Hydro's new corporate headquarters earned a Leadership in Energy Efficient Design platinum designation for its reuse of materials and innovative design and architecture.

3. Watch for contaminated insulators. Throughout the conference, many of the attendees raised concern about the damaging effects of contamination on insulators. To address the problem of substation outages linked to salt contamination, CenterPoint Energy in Houston, Texas, is using corona cameras to detect contamination. That way, crews can identify what insulators need to be washed or replaced to avoid pole-top fires, said Lance Rumfield, director of substation operations.

4. Be prepared for emergency outages. At CenterPoint Energy, the field workforce has not only come up with a new plan to monitor and maintain insulators, but they were also involved in a project to spec, design, build and test a new type of transformer to be used during recovery from emergency outages. This partnership involved ABB, EPRI, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security.

5. Always try to be proactive when it comes to severe weather events. Mother Nature can unleash her wrath through powerful tornadoes, severe ice storms, or devastating floods and hurricanes. Rather than sitting back and waiting for these weather events to destroy their infrastructure, most companies have developed a plan to be proactive and minimize damage.

For example, when a significant flood hit Nebraska last summer, Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) protected its substation yards and critical infrastructure with an Aqua-Dam, said Tom Larsen from OPPD.

CenterPoint Energy also has a contingency plan in place in case of an emergency. To prepare for a significant blackout, the utility trained its employees through Black Start Training.

And Xcel Energy is ready to quickly restore power following severe weather or another unforeseen event. The company has invested in a large inventory of heavy equipment and materials to handle future storms, said William Pim from Xcel Energy.

7. Come up with a plan for extinguishing equipment fires. Fires can put infrastructure and linemen in danger. To help field crews handle equipment fires in their service territory, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has trained an internal Contract Fire Brigade and invested in specialized trailers equipped with foam and other fire extinguishing supplies, said Hal Mortier from SDG&E.

8. Go mobile. The days of pen and paper are over. Today's technology-savvy linemen are using ruggedized laptops in the field. At SaskPower, the field managers are equipped with ruggedized laptops and mapping software to aid in more efficient scheduling and dispatch, according to Dean Mozden.

SCE is also involved in consolidated mobile solutions. The utility's field workforce is now using programs from Click Software for mobile workforce management.

7. Consider online training. In years past, all of a lineman's training had to take place in the classroom or in the field. Now, field professionals can be trained anywhere and anytime with new online training programs. For example, Manitoba Hydro is using 3D Internet's Distribution Switching and Troubleshooting Simulator to help to train its employees.

8. Discover problems before they happen. Rather than waiting for an outage, two utilities have developed preventive maintenance programs aimed at improving power reliability.

AltaLink, for example, has invested in digital X-ray technology to monitor the condition of its compression sleeves and conductors. And SDG&E has launched a condition-based maintenance program. By using a visualization tool from Space-Time Insight, SDG&E technicians are able to discover the condition of the transformers and pinpoint any issues before they turn into costly failures.

9. Pay attention during safety training and make sure you are equipped to handle emergencies. Working as a lineman can be a dangerous occupation, so utilities are trying to do everything they can to protect their field workforce. For example, Arizona Public Service is training its employees on CPR, which recently proved its value during a substation-induced voltage accident. The injured lineman was able to return to work full time after the accident thanks to his coworker who performed CPR on the scene, said Mike McElmury from Arizona Public Service.

Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) also are critical in saving lives. SRP equips both the distribution and transmission field crews with AEDs on their work trucks, said Matt Peek. During an emergency situation, it took ambulances nearly 30 minutes to reach the scene in a remote area, and without the AED on the truck, the person may not have survived.

10. Develop a plan for retaining transmission crew journeymen linemen. One topic that was brought up repeatedly as an issue of concern was how to keep linemen from moving from transmission to distribution. Because transmission linemen are often on the road away from their families, they often shift to the distribution side to be able to get more home time.

To address this problem, some utilities are offering special incentives to their transmission linemen such as extra paid time off. For example, AltaLink's transmission linemen get two weeks of vacation when they have spent 100 nights on the road. At NPPD, when the transmission linemen work eight 10-hour shifts, they get six days off. Also, the utility covers the cost of the lodging and meals for the transmission linemen when they are on the road.

In addition to these issues, conference participants discussed the lack of quality control when it comes to heavy equipment, the possibility that fall protection will be required in the United States and the importance of arranging a beneficial mutual assistance program.

By having the opportunity to voice their concerns and forge relationships with managers from other utilities, the attendees discovered ways to improve productivity and enhance safety. For example, McElmury of Arizona Public Service said it was his first time to the conference, and he learned a lot.

“I have already gained more value than what I spent in being able to be here this week,” he said.


Editor's note: Next year's TDMMA conference will be hosted by Santee Cooper Sept. 9-12, 2013, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. For more information, visit www.tdmm.com.