I will begin by candidly stating that I have not, nor do I ever plan to, skin cats, or A cat for that matter. I do not even know how I would do so. I will admit to mistakenly giving a cat a brief and exciting ride in the clothes dryer. Don’t judge.
As I mentioned in a recent blog, one utility engineer made an interesting statement at the recent MIPSYCON 2015 conference. He said “Nobody is doing it wrong, but everybody is doing it different.”
We work in an industry that offers a vast array of technical challenges that require solutions. Providing these solutions often presents the industry professionals a number of options with which to craft the solutions. In other words, there always seems to be more than one way to ‘skin the cat’.
MIPSYCON 2015 provided a number of technical sessions and case studies that illustrate this ‘multiple-paths’ approach to solving problems. Let’s take a look at some examples.
The author of the previous quote told of his utility’s efforts to implement a company-wide wood pole replacement program. Their utility has a number of operating areas. Each area had a process in place to identify, prioritize, replace, and document pole replacements. All operating areas were managing this in support of the utility’s budget, reliability and operating goals. Yet, every area did it differently. They were able to centralize and standardize on a common, company-wide process. They skinned the cat.
Another utility representative described the challenges of delivering electric power to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. The unprecedented growth provided the utility many options for meeting the electric demands. What voltage to choose? How many new transmission lines? Single or double circuits? Where to site the new substations? What transformer size? Who will own the various components? They skinned the cat.
Another project described a utility upgrade in an older, highly-developed, highly-congested section of the twin cities. Planning for this complex project took years due to the number of possible solutions. Do the new facilities need to be placed in other sections of town for ease of construction? Overhead or underground transmission lines? How and where to upgrade the substations? What aesthetic features to incorporate for the substation walls? What is the balance between cost, architectural appeal and functionality of the walls? How to manage the busy streets that occupy the corridor? How to manage the impact on the current and future footprint of a major medical center in the area? They skinned the cat.
In the electric utility world there are other, very familiar examples of different ways to accomplish solutions. How many investor-owned utilities have identical standards? For anything? Even cooperatives who largely rely on Rural Utilities Services (RUS) standards often use deviations based on their personal preferences or particular experiences.
Transmission line engineers often face the challenge of using self-supporting poles where traditional guy wires and anchors are not feasible. Does one choose a steel pole? Galvanized or weathering? Painted? Pre-designed or engineered for that particular site? Does it need climbing and working ladder accommodations? Will it be a single pole or multiple-section? Are lap splices appropriate or should the pole have flange plate connections? Does the design require hot-line features for energized operation and maintenance? Does the structure need to be pre-cambered? How much deflection should the design allow?
Should a line designer consider laminated wood, steel lattice, or concrete options, each will have a similar list of factors to evaluate.
For decades utility professionals have successfully used a wide variety of means and methods to develop our current grid. With rare exceptions, it serves us reliably and efficiently in spite of different ways that utilities choose to accomplish the same result. They skin the cats many different ways, and yet we all benefit from the consistently beneficial outcomes.
We are all challenged to figure out the ‘right’ solution for our design challenges. Many different factors can determine the ‘right’ way to do something. These factors include cost, schedule, politics, budget, aesthetics and regulations, among others.
The opportunity to navigate these choice options is one of the reasons this industry is so challenging and rewarding.
(No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog)