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The best-laid plans…

Distributech-02062015This past week was the annual DistribuTECH conference in San Diego. It is an international gathering of utility professionals focusing on distribution technology and innovation. Ulteig is an exhibitor. Exhibits need staff to be present in the booth and visit with attendees. So I made it to San Diego for DistribuTECH. Finally.

Planning for these conferences takes place months in advance. Who will attend? At which hotel will we stay? What airline, dates, connections, and times will get us there and back? In which other conference events should we participate?

Yet, in spite of all the planning, disruptions occur that can change everything. We typically have very little control over the timing and severity of most disruptions. Nine-inches of snow and a blizzard hit Cedar Rapids on Sunday. Chicago was worse. My plans were disrupted.

  • Sunday morning (early) flight to Chicago cancelled
  • Sunday morning (later) flight to Chicago cancelled
  • No seats on any flights to non-Chicago connections until Monday afternoon
  • Monday afternoon flight to Dallas – more than two hours late due to flight crew scheduling issue
  • Resulting connection to San Diego – now only 10 minutes. I made the flight, but my bag did not
  • Bag gets to San Diego 10:30 Tuesday morning. Airline does not get it to the hotel until 7 p.m. Tuesday

Disruptions effectively negated much of the conference planning.

I work in an industry that relies heavily on planning. I work for a consulting firm that has the privilege to help provide these important studies to utility clients. The following are some of the planning studies performed by electric utilities:

  • Load Growth Planning – How much electricity will customers use, and how will this change over time, and why?
  • Long Term/Short Term Planning – What capital improvements are required in both the short and long term to adequately operate the utility?
  • Generation Studies – What mix of available generation sources are needed to reliably and economically serve this load? I talked about this more in-depth in a previous two-part post.
  • Capital Improvement Study – Given an anticipated amount of capital to invest, what system improvements will be required?
  • Rate Studies – Given the amount of anticipated budget spending, what rate support will be required to fund this budget?
  • Load Flow Study – How will power flow within the system grid given the generation mix, load distribution and grid components?
  • Line Loading Study – What is the anticipated line loading on individual circuits within the utility’s grid system?
  • Harmonics Study – Are the utility engineers who are singing while they work doing so in nice, tight, pleasing harmonies? (Just to see if you’re still reading…)

There are even more studies, such as short circuit, arc flash, lightning protection, grounding, lighting, relay coordination and many others.

As with almost all planning, as soon as studies are complete, some components of the plans are most likely wrong. Unanticipated events create disruptions to the plans and assumptions.

The economy can change. Customer habits dramatically change. Major weather events create damage to large parts of the grid. A heat wave dramatically increases air conditioning load. A cooler than normal summer dramatically reduces air conditioning load. A company decides to build a large new facility with significant electrical load at an unexpected location on the grid.

A tree branch grows into a major high-voltage line and causes a short circuit and trips the line out of service. A breaker fails unexpectedly and fails to isolate the fault and the outage spreads beyond the planned limits. The subway shuts down and you miss your child’s ballgame. Plans change.

In a moment, often in just a few cycles, things change and utilities have to go back to the plans and make adjustments based on the new realities. Yet, when the proper studies are in place, reaction to the changes are actually easier and timelier because the planning is in place that aids in the adjustments.

Proper planning is an absolute necessity for not just electric utilities, but also for any business or organization. It allows for both efficient day-to-day operation, and also for more rapid adjustments to disruptions.

DistribuTECH 2015 has been full of new and adaptive technologies that allow utilities more options in dealing with disruptive events that affect their systems. There are also new data gathering and analysis tools that provide even more options for utilities to use in their planning. We continue to see the convergence of planning and innovation in this industry, and it is exciting.

I could say more, but I need to check in for tomorrow’s flight and then check the Weather Channel.

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.