With customers demanding ever-higher levels of reliability, and the realities of today’s world demanding ever-higher levels of security and resilience, PPL Electric Utilities has embarked on a major grid modernization program that is adding hefty doses of brains as well as brawn.
PPL is investing around US$1 billion a year on new and rebuilt transmission lines, on new and more secure substations, on smart grid and other distribution projects, and on other improvements to benefit its 1.4 million customers in central and eastern Pennsylvania. It’s the largest investment program since a major expansion of its system in the 1960s and 1970s.
Why are we making that kind of major investment? There are several reasons. First, our assets were aging. In 2010, the average age of our transmission lines was 49 years; almost 20% of the system was 75 years old or older. The average age of one of our transmission system transformers was 32.
We needed to strengthen our infrastructure against storms. For example, we significantly increased our investment in vegetation management. We had far too many wood transmission poles — an invitation for East Coast hurricanes and nor’easters to cause major power outages. We also determined that a more robust lightning protection system was needed.
We needed to improve both physical security and cyber security. Storms are not the only threat a 21st century electric delivery company needs to prepare for. Operational prudence requires today’s grid to have a high level of resilience to ensure it can rebound from man-made attacks as well as catastrophic weather events. Our investments also include significant upgrades in physical and cyber security.
We knew we needed to build, replace, upgrade and invest. But to simply replace these assets in kind would have been a huge missed opportunity. As we build out a stronger system, we are also building out a smarter and more innovative system. That will position PPL as a top-quartile provider of safe, reliable and affordable electricity. It also will help position us for the changing role of utilities in a changing industry.
Technology and data are playing an increasing role in our new grid. We have installed automated switches and sensors, a smart grid automated power restoration system on every circuit of our distribution network, and microprocessor-based relays, to name a few.
Our investment strategy also includes the use of 3-D substation design, installation of a new generation of advanced meters for all customers, and improvements to our website and other key areas to enhance customer experience. We’re also finding many uses for drones, from routine equipment surveys to damage assessment during emergencies. In a recent storm restoration, we used one of our drones to pull a rope across a deep ravine, eliminating the need to call for a helicopter to restring the wires and significantly reducing the restoration time for affected customers.
In the area of data analytics, our field-based sensors provide massive amounts of information that is being gathered, managed and analyzed to improve business decisions. We are moving toward risk-based asset replacement plans, condition-based maintenance, predictive failure analytics, and more targeted and effective system investments.
Engaging Our PPL Team Is Key to Success
Last, but not least on the list of changes, while we invest in our grid, we also are investing in our culture. Employee engagement is PPL’s key to finding business solutions that foster adaptability, embrace diversity of thought, and encourage initiative, creativity and passion. Our employees are a key ingredient in positioning PPL to continue to be successful as our grid and our industry are transformed.
What are the results of these ongoing investments? System reliability has increased markedly, from an average of 0.99 outages per customer in 2007 to an average of 0.6 outages per customer today, accounting for a 39% improvement.
In 2017, PPL had its most reliable year ever, and we are approaching the top 10% in reliability in our large-utility peer group. In practical terms, this means our customers experienced 550,000 fewer interruptions in 2107 than they did 10 years before. Over the past five years, we have reduced lightning-caused outages on the transmission system by 76%. These improvements contributed to a record year in customer satisfaction in 2017.
Meanwhile, we also are investing to embrace and manage increasing levels of distributed generation on our grid. Our Keystone Solar Future Project, supported in part by a $3 million Department of Energy grant, is paving the way for high levels of interconnected distributed generation. We also are planning to transform and improve our interconnection process.
The role of the electric utility is changing. Customers are generating more of their own power, placing new demands on our delivery system. Regulators are scrutinizing investments and the impacts they are having on customer bills. New regulatory constructs are needed to deal with these new realities.
At PPL Electric Utilities, we’re well positioned to navigate the changing landscape of our business, while continuing to meet the public’s expectation for safe, reliable and affordable electricity. ♦