In the media

Tracking utility reliability for nearly four decades

Public Utilities Fortnightly

01 January 2024

PA Consulting’s ReliabilityOne® program director Derek HasBrouck is featured in a Q&A with Public Utilities Fortnightly regarding utility reliability and PA’s ReliabilityOne® program.

The article notes that PA Consulting has recognized outstanding reliability at utilities via its ReliabilityOne® program, which includes awards and community. 2023 marked the twenty-third year the awards were given, and Commonwealth Edison, an Exelon utility, was recognized as this year’s most reliable U.S. utility. Also recognized were six regional utilities across the U.S., based on overall system-wide SAIDI, SAIFI, and CAIDI performance. Winners this year: San Diego Gas & Electric, Public Service Electric and Gas Company, Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Orange and Rockland Utilities, Florida Power & Light Company, and Commonwealth Edison. An important part is the Community, a unique forum for utility leaders to openly share best practices and methods to overcome challenges allowing for real change in their organizations.

Public Utilities Fortnightly (PUF) Steve Mitnick: Derek, you’ve been an expert in system reliability for a long time. Talk about that and what you and your team at PA Consulting do in this area.

Derek: We’ve been helping utilities, regulators, and end users understand system reliability and the actual reliability that individual customers experience for over thirty-five years. That’s taken many forms, from improved maintenance programs to targeted asset modernization, and now a whole lot of grid modernization. Advanced metering infrastructure also plays a key role. Today, the topic is generally resiliency. How do we ensure reliability on blue-sky days, how do we think about major events, and how to build in the capability to both mitigate the impact of those events and rapidly restore functionality to society on the backside of those events? The ReliabilityOne® program has its roots as a platform to recognize utilities that are the best at that, because there is a wide divergence of performance across the industry. We measure that performance, validate it, and certify those measurements. Then we look to use the platform to sing the praises of the utilities that are truly the best in the industry.

PUF: This is a very highly quantitative and rigorous analysis to measure and look at the distribution of performances.

Derek: One hundred percent. There is some publicly available information that we start with. Then we delve into the nuances of how each company has prepared that information, how they measure and quantify it, what they exclude, if anything, and how their processes work, so we can certify that the results we’re basing decisions on are accurate and apples-to-apples, as the saying goes.

PUF: There’s a divergence among the best performers, the middle of the pack, and maybe those that are lagging a bit. Is that true, that there’s a significant difference?

Derek: Well, yes, and there’s been a change in performance over time by the whole industry, as well. If we look back at the award program, this is our twenty-third annual awards. At the turn of the century, a leading utility in most regions of the country would deliver something like two hours of outage, on average, to each customer each year, and that was generally something along the range of one-ish outage event on average per customer. If an individual customer was out once on a sustained basis, for two hours over the course of a year, that was good performance or maybe quite good performance. Today, that number is an outage every two years on average for the best performers, and that outage duration annually is about thirty minutes. And, over that time, we’ve gone from sort of guessing at the raw data behind all those calculations to having actual meter data from AMI, which verifies when the power went off and when it came back on.

The impact of those automated improvements in the measurements is a drag on the reported performance. The paper solutions always yielded slightly better than were actually true. Examples are a first responder arrives at a site to a simple fuse blown on an overhead transformer and verifies what the issue is. “Yes, there’s a dead squirrel at the bottom of the pole. I’ll re-fuse the transformer.” He calls that time back in to the dispatcher. That would invariably get reported as typically either in five-minute or ten-minute chunks. You report round numbers. You don’t report 9:44. You report, “That was about 9:45 or 9:40.” Now we have electronic measurement of those times, and don’t have any fuzz in the tennis ball anymore.

PUF: There was an award you gave this year. Who won this award?

Derek: I need to set the stage. We give regional awards annually, and those award winners have the best numeric results in their respective region. We then give a national award that takes that numeric performance into account, and also includes other qualitative factors that we think are important. This year’s national award winner was ComEd, in Chicago, an Exelon Company, based on 2022 calendar year performance. In some ways, this recognition for ComEd is a recognition of their long-term journey. From the mid-2000s to now, it’s a worst to first story. Because ComEd has gone from an average duration of outages that was up in the sixty- or seventy-minute category a decade ago to twenty-six minutes in 2022, based on one set of reporting criteria. A big improvement. Investments in AMI and grid modernization play roles, along with a lot of hard work by ComEd’s workforce. It is exciting to see.

PUF: Do you find over the years, especially in the regions, that some companies consistently are up there, and some win two or three years in a row?

Derek: Absolutely. There are companies that are consistent and dedicated to reliability, and it shows. It comes out in the consistency of the improvement in their performance. That is what we’ve been talking about. You have to keep getting better.

Let’s go with Florida Power and Light. They are the best in the southeast region. And, they have consistently improved their performance annually since 2013! The way they do it is every day throughout each and every year, they look to raise the bar in terms of reliability, and particularly resiliency. We also give out special achievement awards, and this year Florida Power and Light got the grid resiliency award for recognition of how the utility hardened and enhanced its grid design. So, when Hurricane Ian came through in 2022, a Category Four storm with a broad footprint, the utility restored customers effectively in eight days, and had a huge percentage of the customers restored within two days.

The utility thinks about the value of resiliency in the context of the GDP of the State of Florida. FPL thinks in terms of “What can we do to get Florida up and running, and how can we make prudent investments to do that?” As a result of that thinking, they have made a numerous change, one example of which is the elimination of wood structures on their transmission system. Because if the transmission system falls over, that is a weeks’ issue. They have a strategy on their distribution feeders that, yes, when boats blow inland, as we saw in Ian, some power lines are going to get damaged, but if the poles remain upright, we can pick the wire back up relatively quickly. While the whole grid hardening and storm resiliency effort pays off on blue-sky days, they really pay off when events like Ian come through.

PUF: What do people do with it? Is the data and the analysis enough so that the companies take action? Also, your firm, because you’re a consulting firm. You all, are you informed by this analysis, and does it lead to actions for further improvements?

Derek: The awards ceremony is an evening dinner, but the best part of the event is that we have a day two best practices conference where this group of regional winners from around the country sit and talk, moderated by the PA Consulting team, in a structured fashion about what they are doing to further advance. Maybe that’s an unfair advantage. This is a group of the best-performing utilities, talking amongst each other about how they can get even better in terms of reliability and resiliency to serve their customers. Those conversations continually raise the bar!

Here’s a concrete example that brings it back to PA Consulting’s focus on end-to-end innovation. As a result of one of those conversations four years ago, one of the companies said, “We’ve got an issue with a type of equipment, connection, and it causes a significant reliability issue. How could we predict in advance before they fail?” We had conversation with them, and in working with a machine learning startup company, PA Consulting and our partner have developed a solution we call iPredict. It is deployed by several utilities and uses high-fidelity power quality metering data to identify fault precursors to enable us to move the distribution system from a run-to-failure to a replace, just before failure on a planned basis. That whole area of waveform analysis to improve equipment performance and system performance is frankly what’s keeping me engaged, because it is fun, interesting, exciting stuff.

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