Grid: Powered by the People

Sept. 1, 2012
To keep the lights on, electric utilities need networks of equipment and technology. They also need vehicles, machinery and tools to build and maintain

To keep the lights on, electric utilities need networks of equipment and technology. They also need vehicles, machinery and tools to build and maintain this infrastructure. But, in reality, appliances run, street lights function and cell phone batteries get charged largely because of the commitment, knowledge and concern of bright, passionate people.

These people operate and maintain our electric power grid, which has been called the largest, most complex machine in the world and the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, according to the National Academy of Engineering. This is a grid that, despite many challenges, has extraordinary reliability.

Keeping every light on at all times is impossible, but there's no such thing as too much reliability. As utility executives know all too well, customers want power all day, every day. This demand for reliability is evident in the government's response to the 2003 blackout, which included the establishment of mandatory reliability standards for the power grid.

Utility personnel are no exception. Reliability is a daily goal for the workers who operate and maintain the grid. But there's a factor beyond rules that drives them to accomplish this task.

Focusing on Improving Reliability

Many of these professionals work for utilities that are members of the North American Transmission Forum, a voluntary group whose mission is to help its members achieve operational excellence. Our members are not satisfied with doing solely what's mandatory to ensure transmission reliability. Rather, they are committed to advancing their transmission-reliability practices toward excellence. The goal is to yield reliability benefits well beyond the requirements of mandatory standards.

Not surprisingly, this appeals to many utilities. The Forum has 74 members, which represent about 80% of transmission circuit miles at 100 kV and above in the U.S. and Canada and about 90% of the peak demand. This is significant growth considering the Forum started with just 16 members in 2006.

In Pursuit of Excellence

The Forum's activities are centered around a set of integrated programs that help members continually improve their operations.

Performing peer reviews

Weeklong reviews are conducted at host utilities by teams of about 20 industry professionals, primarily subject-matter experts from other Forum members. Our peer review teams provide critical feedback on how to improve reliability-related operations. We also identify things that the host is doing particularly well so we can share those among the membership to facilitate emulation.

Besides feedback to the host, all participants benefit from the collective discussion of key reliability topics. Forum peer reviews are not audits but rather are oriented toward excellence: How can members do better, regardless of how well they are currently doing?

Creating and sharing best practices

The Forum develops practices in specific operational areas to provide a framework for members to focus reliability efforts and identify superior approaches that can be readily exchanged. Our groups conduct routine conference calls and meet in person annually to share their own approaches and experiences, and draft Forum practices.

Sharing key reliability information

Information sharing is an ongoing effort, some of which is targeted. Members can pose specific questions to peers on technical or process challenges, and receive answers and comments either through a discussion board or formal survey of members. Members use this feedback to help make important reliability decisions.

Developing metrics

The Forum's metrics area has focused extensively on transmission availability. Members have developed a platform to share transmission availability data and compare themselves to peers based on voltage class, geography and other attributes. We're currently working to add more information regarding the causes of transmission unavailability, and we're looking into a broader set of indicators to measure transmission system reliability.

Staying flexible

Our 75 members represent a wide range of operational scope and responsibility. We are analyzing the different member segments to make sure we're adding optimal value for all members. For example, we're looking at several new ways to help improve member performance, including a focus on members' internal controls and performance improvement activities.

Our members share the goal of excellence and understand they are in this together. The Forum supports these concepts by helping power professionals network with their peers and, in turn, share best practices that will pay dividends now and in the future.

Tom Galloway was elected the Forum's first president and CEO in 2011. He previously served as NERC senior vice president and chief reliability officer and headed SERC Reliability Corporation's compliance organization.

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