Utility Infrastructure Old and Getting Older

Aug. 20, 2014
We know that aging infrastructures present us with a gradual problem, more akin to quicksand that slowly draws the utility in and from which only a sustained, steady effort can extricate it.

In the early 1990s, I led a team at one of the power industry’s large equipment manufacturers to look into aging utility infrastructures and determine what it meant for both the future of our industry and the company. Over the next three years, just as the industry was awakening to the fact that much of its equipment was approaching “advanced age,” I met with executives at major utilities throughout North America.

At some utilities, I saw something akin to panic over a possible nightmare scenario. The average high-voltage breaker at one utility was already 47 years old, the average transformer 46. It seemed inevitable that over the next decade or so equipment would begin failing at increasing rates, driving the company into bankruptcy with unaffordable replacement expenses,  coupled with unacceptable operating reliability. The industry appeared to be about to drive off a financial cliff’s edge.

Strengthening Our Position

Of course, there was no cliff’s edge, no looming crisis. Two decades later, we know that aging infrastructures present us with a gradual problem, more akin to quicksand that slowly draws the utility in and from which only a sustained, steady effort can extricate it. Meanwhile, new and innovative testing methods have been developed that help us better identify and prioritize which old equipment is most in need of attention. And life extension and refurbishment programs have proven effective at mitigating and, in some cases, reversing deterioration caused by decades of service. Replacement is (and should be) done only as a last resort, and then very selectively where needed and as justified on sound economic principles.

The effect of all these programs, even selective replacement, is not to renew the system by making it “younger” — but instead to make it older still.

Cable injection and treatment programs mean old cable can now stay in place and do its job for many more years. Breaker refurbishment and upgrade programs give breakers that were near their end of serviceable life additional decades of value. Wood pole testing and treatment programs cull out bad poles regardless of age, and leave old and new poles in place to get older — and average age continues to increase.

My point is that all of this is as it should be: The result of an effective and well-run aging asset management program is that equipment will last longer and thus the average age of the equipment in service will increase. By doing exactly what it should, and doing it well, the utility actually increases its dependence on old equipment and the technologies, skills, IT programs and the institutionalized processes it needs to manage old equipment become more important than ever.

Steady and Sustain

This continued aging, driven by continued use of old equipment and increased by life extension and better maintenance, will not go on forever. But it will continue until the utility’s system reaches a sustainable point, where equipment service lifetimes have been pushed to their economic limit, and the utility is carefully managing equipment, old and new, to see that every piece provides the maximum lifetime and value it can, only to be replaced when it truly has no value left. No utility system in North America is close to that point yet.

Recently, Quanta Technology has done research and analysis that indicates most utilities have at least two decades before they are close to that point. And when they reach that point, their systems will, on average, be about 10 to 20 years older than today.

While the “power system of the future” will no doubt be retrofitted with smart technology and state-of-the-art monitoring and condition tracking, aging infrastructures (along with the tools, management systems and institutional focus they require) are going to be with us forever. Yet, currently at many utilities, aging infrastructure programs are treated as special and temporary — one or more teams are assembled and/or a contractor hired to focus on “cleaning up” problems in an older area of the system or plaguing a particular equipment category across the system. The required spending is covered by “extraordinary” budget allocations or one-time allocations of funding thought to be outside the every-year norm.

Utilities need to recognize that living with and tending to an aging system is the new normal. They need to make the transition to that new normal — before they get mired too deeply in the quicksand — by developing and institutionalizing the skills, organization, IT, equipment, tools and operational resources required; providing the budgets needed; and making them all part of their everyday routine, mainstream operations.

Lee Willis ([email protected]) is a co-founder and senior vice president at Quanta Technology, located in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Editor’s note: Lee Willis is a co-author of Aging Power Delivery Infrastructures (second edition) available from Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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