Improving reliability was a top priority for utility executives following the August 2003 blackout that unraveled the northeastern United States and southeastern Canadian portions of the Eastern Interconnection.
The executives all understood the effects the blackout had on the health and welfare of the citizens of both countries as well as their economies. They also agreed that they needed to prevent a future blackout of the same scale and magnitude.
The transmission owners and operators realized that to achieve operational excellence of the transmission system, they needed more than just compliance to the standards set and enforced by the North American Reliability Corporation (NERC) in its role as the Electric Reliability Organization.
It took teamwork and cooperation, but we did it. We started in 2006 as a group of 16 transmission owners and operators in the United States and Canada eager to share expertise and lessons learned from operating the electricity grids, and we now have 54 members.
But we didn't start from scratch. We looked around to see the structure of existing organizations to see if any fit what we were trying to do.
Drawing Inspiration from the Nuclear Industry
Shortly after the 2003 blackout, transmission owners and operators visited with staff members from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). The organization was chartered to promote excellence in the operation of nuclear generating plants, and the executives met with INPO employees to learn about its secrets to success. We found their model, with some tweaking, would work for the bulk power delivery system as well.
The Birth of the Forum
In 2006, 16 organizations petitioned the NERC board of trustees to create the Transmission Owners and Operators Forum within NERC. The forum's purpose was to “…improve the reliability and security of the bulk power system” by exchanging information on best practices for reliable operations, evaluating forum members' own performances against those best practices, and disseminating lessons learned from disturbances and near misses.
The forum has one main goal: to promote the highest level of reliability in the operation of the electric transmission system. The organization also follows five core values: leading change by sharing best practices, fostering a sense of community, garnering the commitment of senior leadership, sharing information through openness and candor, and maintaining confidentiality.
The organization is now a forum of 54 utilities with 950 subject-matter experts who are writing best practices, sharing operating events and conducting on-site peer reviews.
In the beginning, the forum members quickly recognized that the transmission system in the United States and Canada is owned and operated by vastly different kinds and sizes of organizations. As a result, they knew the forum needed to start slowly and build confidence and a sense of community to be successful.
The forum's membership and activities grew rapidly as its subject-matter experts became comfortable working with each other. They then began writing practices and sharing a vast array of information ranging from system operating events to effective ways to comply with reliability standards.
Since its start in 2006, the North American Transmission Forum has written 12 sets of practices covering vegetation management, compliance management, and energy management systems and supervisory control and data acquisition “tools.” System planning and operating modeling guidelines and practices covering system protection and operator training are in the works. The forum members have participated in some 250 WebEx meetings, shared ways to manage compliance, posted several internal procedures, discussed draft standards with drafting team members who belong to the forum, and reviewed the lessons learned from system events and compliance audits.
The forum works because it offers very bright, experienced and passionate people the opportunity to make a difference. And it draws its energy from the culture of reliability that the transmission owners and operators have always believed in, and a deep appreciation that “we're all in this together.”
Don Benjamin (email@example.com) is the executive director of the North American Transmission Forum. Prior to joining the forum in 2008, he was the vice president of operations at NERC and served as secretary of the NERC Operating Committee since 1983. Before moving to NERC, he joined the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group as its first staff engineer.
Editor's note: For more information on the North American Transmission Forum, contact Don Benjamin at 609-882-0680.