More than 120 power industry managers joined forces to discuss industry trends, openly debate technologies and network with one another at the 2011 Transmission and Distribution Maintenance Management (TDMM) Conference in San Diego. Unlike other industry conferences, however, exhibitors and sponsors didn't line the hallways and advertise their latest products to the attendees.

The Transmission and Distribution Maintenance Management Association (TDMMA), which has been self-supported since 1976, strives to create networking opportunities for operators, managers and supervisors in the industry. As such, the association prohibits vendors from attending or sponsoring the annual event. As a result, the association was able to deliver three full days of open and honest discussion about challenges and opportunities in the power industry. More than 120 field managers and engineers from 32 utilities in the United States, Canada and Peru attended the event from Sept. 19-22 at the Sheraton Hotel and Marina.

“Our focus is to build good relationships between sister utilities, and share information openly and honestly without concern for vendors' attention,” said Tim Yuskin, one of the co-chairs of the 2011 conference. “We try to be honest and open, get good feedback and improve our businesses.”

As in past years, the association targeted its educational sessions to three key subgroups — substation, transmission and distribution — as well as technical managers at utilities. George Patrick, supervisor-transmission lines for Santee Cooper, said this approach to training has been successful because utilities' delivery of power to their customers is a team effort.

“Even though we may specialize in substation, transmission or distribution, we have to work as a team to get power from generation to the customer,” he said. “If we integrate those three disciplines in the conference, we can build teamwork, share those efforts, discuss business decisions and help us all to deal with future challenges.”

For the past 28 years, a representative from Santee Cooper has attended the conference, and in 2013, the utility will be hosting the event in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Patrick said his company views the conference as an opportunity to gain experience and network with other utilities. For him personally, the conference has been valuable throughout his career in the power industry.

“When I was a younger, inexperienced person in the industry, I absorbed a lot of information from the senior members who attended the conference at that time,” he said. “Even though I still learn and gain insight at the conference, I now look forward to sharing my experiences with the younger participants.”

Utilities Come Together

By networking with managers from different utilities, attendees can forge alliances that often come in handy during a time of need. Trevor Smith, one of the co-chairs for the 2012 conference and a presenter, said the TDMMA is helping the utility industry to stay connected.

“The networking opportunities are limitless,” said Smith, who works for Manitoba Hydro. “For mutual aid, you can make a phone call, and there are a lot fewer barriers because you know the right guy to talk to.”

For example, when the wildfires destroyed 2,600 structures in Southern California in October 2007, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) had five generating units down for maintenance and needed to wash soot off of the ceramic insulators on 73 structures to restore power on a 500-kV line. With no time to spare, J. Bret Ball, SDG&E's transmission manager and this year's president of TDMMA, immediately contacted George Parker at Southern California Edison (SCE) for assistance. Ball had met Parker in 2004 at a TDMM conference, and thanks to this longstanding relationship, Parker immediately sent out wash trucks equipped with booms to SDG&E.

Ball used this example of utilities working together in a presentation at the TDMM conference, where he presented Parker with a special award for his prompt response and ability to prevent a widespread outage.

“This is a good reminder of what the conference is all about,” Ball said. “TDMMA is like a family. When we are working on storms or need materials, we try to help each other out. Building the contacts and relationships here at the conference is crucial in time of need.”

For example, a year after the fires, SCE turned back to SDG&E after its 500-kV structures went down. Since the linemen had no way to anchor the temporary structures in rocks, SDG&E sent them a temporary anchoring system over the weekend. SCE then was able to get its 500-kV line back in service.

Technical Training Tour

In addition to helping utility managers to forge a strong network, TDMMA also invites attendees to join a hands-on, interactive training tour the day prior to the conference. In past years, the association has planned tours of the Hubbell facility in Centralia, Missouri, as well as a hydro plant in Colorado.

This year, however, SDG&E, the host utility, opted for a different approach by organizing a self-guided tour of its training center, which is located on top of a hill overlooking San Diego. Two vans transported TDMM attendees from the hotel to the training center, where they could get an up close and personal look at SDG&E's training program.

“We wanted to show the managers some of the technology and skills that we use every day,” Ball said.

For example, the utility set up demonstrations in its substation training yard, transmission area and distribution area. Visitors were invited to put on a helmet and sit in a Polaris Ranger, which was equipped with a Panasonic ruggedized computer on a Gamber-Johnson mount. In addition, they could walk over to an area displaying SDG&E's heavy equipment including a Bronto 156-ft insulated boom. Further down the path, the utility's Bell helicopter had its panels open and its FLIR equipment on display for users. Attendees could take a peek inside a van with Corona equipment or get a good look at an electric vehicle charging station.

Throughout the day, SDG&E also provided live demonstrations such as tower rescue. Every year, the utility trains tower workers on self-rescue as well as the evacuation of injured workers. Visitors could watch a demonstration in which two of the SDG&E linemen climbed the tower using fall-protection equipment as another crew member spotted them from down on the ground. The utility also offered a wash demo, in which workers used an Altec insulator wash truck to clean off ceramic-type insulators.

SDG&E also invited attendees to see other aspects of its training facility, including a floating photovoltaic demonstration project from Pyron Solar, which uses a small, circular pool to cool down the panels. To cut down on the undesirable effects of standing water, the vendor uses mosquito-eating fish and algae-eating baby sharks in its pond.

In the substation yard, Noah Behnke, a journeyman electrician for SDG&E, was also showcasing a new tester called the Kelvatek Profile, which gives the apprentices information on the condition of the breakers. The substation training yard also featured a Delta Star portable transformer, a Doble test truck and an IntelliRupter recloser from S&C Electric.

In addition to the substation and transmission areas, the visitors could visit the distribution area to learn how to create an equipotential zone, recognize electrical hazards in the workplace and locate underground cable faults.

Finally, the technical tour attendees could visit SDG&E's mission control center, which included an example of its weather sensor called an anemometer from Campbell Scientific. Currently, the utility has installed 136 of these devices throughout its service territory. As a result, the utility owns the third-largest weather monitoring system in the United States.

Shedding Light on the Blackout

Following the technical tour, TDMMA kicked off its opening session of the conference with a keynote presentation from Mike Niggli, president and COO of SDG&E.

A mere week before the event, darkness blanketed San Diego in a blackout, which knocked out power to 7 million customers. The utility's 500-kV line, which spans from San Diego through the Imperial Valley to Mexico, went down following a series of events on the Pacific Southwest Bulk Power System.

“This is the first time we have dropped the whole system,” Niggli said. “You don't lose the system like this with one event. Instead, we saw a cascade of events before it was swept up into a big outage.”

SDG&E works with five balancing authorities in the region, which added complexity to the restoration effort and required a tremendous amount of coordination. All of the balancing authorities worked with neighboring utilities to get the power back on for their customers in less than 12 hours.

“What happened here in San Diego was an interesting event from an emergency management standpoint,” he said. “The events that followed the significant outage impacted us in so many ways, yet the ability to collaborate and innovate led to success.”

Uncovering Industry Trends and Technologies

Following the keynote, TDMMA provides three days of sessions aimed at inspiring and educating the power industry managers. The mornings are reserved for panel discussions, which typically cover such topics as new technologies, major challenges, disaster recovery and incident review.

While the overall topics may be consistent from one year to the next, the attendees always learn something new because of the changes and new challenges in the industry, Ball said.

Tom Cote of Black Hills Energy said he and five other coworkers flew to San Diego to hear about the latest technologies and learn about the major challenges with equipment and how utilities were resolving those challenges.

“I want to see what's out there for best practices and learn from the other utilities,” Cote said. “I went to the conference a few years ago, and it was one of the best ones I've ever been to for this industry, so I wanted to attend the one this year.”

At the 2011 conference, TDMMA showcased technology such as a polymer insulator tester, which is currently in the research and development stages. Bob Blessin, transmission line superintendent for the Nebraska Public Power District, said he expects a prototype of the tester to be available later this year and for the device to be manufactured by Hubbell.

Mark Ledbetter, manager of GIS services for the Salt River Project, delivered the next presentation on how his utility is shifting from a paper-based system for recording inspection data to a digital approach. The company's linemen now use Panasonic Toughbooks and a GPS to accurately and efficiently capture data. This new approach has improved planning and scheduling, simplified photo access, expedited repairs, improved system reliability and reduced IT support costs.

Preparing for Disasters

Utilities also shared their stories and storm photos during a “Major Events” panel on Tuesday morning. Karl Illiev and John Kress from SDG&E discussed an earthquake's effect on a major substation, while Trevor Smith from Manitoba Hydro educated the attendees about what happened when ice encapsulates DC tower footings. Finally, Mike Fleming of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power discussed the aftermath of a DC line failure that brought down a significant portion of the company's system.

The next morning, the panel topics first focused on emergency preparedness. Lena Fotland, electric operations project manager for SDG&E, discussed her utility's proactive plan to prepare for the risk of fires in Southern California. Jim Avery, vice president of power supply for SDG&E, also educated the attendees on nuclear power plant safety.

The presenters also touched upon major challenges in the utility industry. Kurt Syverson from BPA discussed his company's experience with implementing a barehand work methods program. Afterwards, a team from SCE, including Dan Carbjal, Jeff Billingsley and Art Bradbury, described the evolution of the human external cargo program and how SCE is training linemen to work from helicopters to maintain lines. Finally, Steve Noralski from the BPA discussed his company's vegetation management program.

On the final day of the conference, the panels talked about successes and failures. For example, Glen West of Manitoba Hydro described his company's substation flood protection program, and Mark Johnson from Colorado Springs Utilities talked about how to develop a workforce for line work. Finally, John Peckinpaugh, Jr. of the Tennessee Valley Authority described the use of step bolt ground fault tests.

Handling Accidents in the Field

As in past years, the conference not only zoned in on major events and technologies, but it also featured a panel discussion on incidents and accidents. This presentation was designed to give the attendees a glimpse into three different fatalities or injuries and how they could have been prevented. For example, Mark Berenbach of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power talked about a worker who made electrical contact with a switch cabinet while Georgia Power Engineer Keith Reese warned the attendees to watch out for gas pipelines.

Also on the panel, Patrick told a story about a worker who was killed while working on a line de-energized but charged by an induced voltage. By including this type of panel presentation, the TDMMA is conveying its message of safety.

“This type of panel gets down to the reality of the environment that our crews work in every day,” Patrick said. “It also reinforces our primary responsibility that safety is of the utmost importance. We must ensure that our linemen work in a safe environment so they can return home to their families.”

Supporting an Open Forum

Another integral part of the TDMM conference is the open forum approach. Each afternoon, the attendees select from one of two concurrent forums, which cover themes such as grounding, asset management, emergency preparedness, contractor management, substations, transmission, distribution, fleet equipment, workforce management, environmental concerns and helicopter work methods. These 90-minute forums enabled attendees to voice their frustrations about products that weren't performing in the field. In addition, they shared their success stories about technology that helped them to improve productivity and safety for their field workforce.

Another important aspect of the forums was the ability to share best practices. The open forums create an opportunity for the attendees to listen to others' experiences and share their stories, Patrick said. “They allow us to understand that we are all doing the same job, but we all have different challenges, and our business decisions are driven by various impacts on our locations.”

Kevin Schwing, manager of operations and maintenance for SaskPower in Canada, said he's been attending the conference for the last five years, and for him, one of the most valuable aspects of the event are the open forums.

“You learn about what is going on, and what is and isn't working,” Schwing said. “Then when you get home, you can send out an e-mail to the group, and within seconds, you will get feedback. They are very giving of their time.”

Canada Hosts 2012 Event

For 2012, TDMMA is scheduling the event in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Glen West, next year's conference co-chair, said the attendees will be able to join a technical tour of the Dorsey Inverter Station. The tour also will include the Manitoba Hydro training center, which now features an indoor substation as well as training poles and towers.

As in past conferences, the 2012 event will educate all sectors of the industry — substation, transmission and distribution — on the latest trends and technologies. It will also give utility managers the opportunity to get a worldwide perspective about what is going on in the power industry. As a result, they can take comfort in the fact that other utilities are facing similar issues, West said. He said Winnipeg will be organizing the event for the second time in the history of TDMM.

“We are looking forward to hosting it, and we welcome everyone to come see us,” West said.

Editor's note: To see more photos from the TDMM conference, visit the Electric Utility Operations Facebook page.