North America’s electrical grid has been called the world’s most complex machine. Each day, tens of thousands of activities must happen flawlessly to ensure reliable electrical service. That complexity is only increasing, due to factors such as an evolving fuel mix, generator retirements and security-related threats.

Grid reliability typically is credited to its robust design and layers of redundancy. But an equally important reliability ingredient is the focus, innovation and technical savvy of the professionals who own and operate the grid. North American Transmission Forum (NATF) members are a community of dedicated professionals focused on achieving excellence in the reliable operation of North America’s electric transmission system. Electricity has become an essential societal life-blood, and transmission serves as its critical arteries.    

Promoting Excellence in the Industry

The August 2003 blackout was a precipitating event for the creation of mandatory and enforceable reliability standards that went into effect June 2007. Standards exist to help ensure an adequate level of reliability (that is, to help prevent cascading outages and large losses of electrical load). August 2003 also precipitated creation of the NATF, whose 16 charter members sought to preserve high levels of performance — excellence — through candid information exchange, which has long been an industry hallmark. The need for the NATF, and the value added to the industry, has since been born out.

Since inception, the NATF has added functionality and consistently grown membership. Comprising a significant majority of high-voltage circuit miles and electrical peak load, membership spans all eight reliability regions, five organizational types and a broad range of company sizes. Despite that diversity, several unifying principles prevail: community, candor and commitment.

Community. NATF members intentionally set aside potential competitive interests and work together to promote increasingly higher levels of reliability. Members recognize the interconnected nature of the grid warrants seamless interaction and active collaboration. Continued focus on higher performance levels helps to install needed “margin” to support system reliability, even in the face of unanticipated problems.

Candor. Members interact frankly, holding one another accountable to share important reliability information in a timely fashion. Vulnerabilities recognized by one member are shared to help reduce the likelihood on a similar failure elsewhere in the membership. And “success stories” are shared so that customer expectations for cost-effectiveness are addressed simultaneously with performance expectations.

Commitment. The NATF’s mission is to promote excellence in the reliable operation of the electric transmission system. Members are committed to compliance with mandatory reliability standards but recognize standards focus on an adequate level of reliability (preventing widespread and/or significant load loss). Rather than settle for this level of performance, members work aggressively to achieve high levels of performance.

Facing New Challenges

These principles promote a member posture that is both agile and impactful. This is critical for success in an increasingly complex operating environment.

Beyond traditional challenges to transmission reliability such as equipment malfunction and severe weather, the industry is facing new situations. For example, changes to fuel mix and retirement of base-load units have placed added pressure on operators, potentially increasing the opportunity for error. Security issues are on the rise as well, with both cyber and physical threats increasing in frequency and prospective significance. This changing landscape underscores the criticality of timely and effective information sharing.

Accordingly, the NATF has placed added focus on human performance error reduction and security improvements (cyber, physical and resiliency). Both topics lend themselves well to NATF’s approach and design. A wealth of human performance data and associated error-reduction tools are available from other industries such as nuclear generation and aviation, and the NATF is working deliberately to adapt and implement these tools to address error-likely situations unique to the power industry or resultant from the aforementioned changes in operating environment.

Regarding security, tomorrow’s threats can be counted on to be more sophisticated and challenging than today’s; therefore, the ability to share threat — and defense — information in a highly agile fashion is paramount. Effective action by the NATF translates to increased protection for a large fraction of the industry’s important assets.

With a large reliability footprint, efficient approach and dedication of members, the NATF is well positioned to address today’s reliability challenges and advance excellence.


Tom Galloway (tom.galloway@transmissionforum.net) is president and CEO of the North American Transmission Forum.