Blaze Could Lead to Blackout in the Southwest

    June 9, 2011 9:43 AM by Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor
    While driving through New Mexico and Arizona just last month, I saw six or seven different wildfires, all being tended by firemen who were usually standing alongside a tar-black highway engulfed in tar-black smoke with a single hose and a small truck. Once in awhile, the traffic would grind to a halt on that tar-black highway as the tar-black smoke blocked all visibility.

    When I drove back along the same road a week later, all that was left of those fires were tar-black stains on what is otherwise a golden bit of desert brush.

    But, in the Southwestern desert, without rain in plain sight, fire is the top tier of summer weather, and flames have broken out once again---this time into one of the largest blazes in Arizona history, known as the Wallow fire. Wallow has already burned 389,000 acres, mostly of national forest land.

    The firemen in this scenario have moved past the single hose to fight the flames and are using fire retardant dropped from the air and entire brigades of fireman from as far away as New York. And, while the fighters are making progress, the fire is getting dangerously close to power transmission lines in the area and may cause blackouts.

    "There are concerns about power transmission lines and obviously the fire is still moving and active,” said Karen Takai, a spokesman for the fire incident command to ABC News on Thursday. On Wednesday night, ABC News reported that it covered over 600 square miles.

    El Paso Electric Co. is reporting that the fire is about 15 miles from their Springerville-Luna transmission line, though whether that line will be under fire---or above it, as the case may be---is entirely a matter of wind.

    Now, wildfires in the Southwest aren’t often the towering, raging visuals we’ve seen in movies. The brush and burn areas are small and short. Flames rarely get taller than a few inches unless they encounter a bigger burnable obstacle like a house or the rare tree. With most transmission lines high, high in the air on big steel supports, transmission lines are unlikely to be drastically impacted by such a low-burning fire. But, given the right wind, the right environmental force, the unlikely can still happen.

    So, El Paso Electric is taking no chances. They’ve warned their customers that the fire could hurt their ability to bring in power from Palo Verde, which could lead to rolling blackouts (in a worst case scenario). But, they do have equipment on hand to roll in and fix things as soon as the area is safe.

    El Paso Electric owns one 345 kV transmission line and co-owns another 345 kV line that carry power from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona to the utility’s Southern New Mexico/West Texas service territory. Combined, the lines carry 633 MW, which is almost 40 percent of the company’s available generation. This fire could impact nearly 372,000 customers.

    In the end, no line may be impacted by the fire. We’ll all cross our fingers for that one. There is reason to hope with low winds and superior firefighter power this Thursday morning.

    But, El Paso Electric should be commended not just for being prepared with men, equipment and trucks---one expects that with a well-run utility today---but also for being proactive in communication and transparent with its customers and the press. That’s key to keeping panic to a minimum in any dangerous situation.

    With these open lines of information, people feel they can trust El Paso Electric to keep an eye on the flames. And building trust is important in any relationship, even in business---perhaps especially in business. Despite the potential detrimental impact to customers in the form of power loss, El Paso Electric will be seen by their customers as a partner ready and able to help if the worst happens.

    But, let’s hope the worst doesn’t happen---no tar-black stains on the desert floor under those transmission lines please.

    Is former utility bigwig Bryson too green for commerce?

    June 1, 2011 2:13 PM by Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor
    In what has been branded by conservatives as a move to push alternative energy over traditional resources, President Obama has named former Edison International CEO John Bryson to run the Commerce Department (replacing Gary Locke, who may be moving to an ambassadorship in China).

    Obama touted Bryson as “a business leader who understands what it takes to innovate, to create jobs, and to persevere through tough times” and “a fierce proponent of alternative energy.”

    While Bryson did work for solar company BrightSource Energy these last few months, that’s not the scope of his power resume. He’s no lightweight when it comes to the hard-hitting, gritty, rather conservative power business. He helmed Edison during the serious California energy crisis that claimed utilities with lesser navigation skills like Pacific Gas and Electric, which was forced into bankruptcy trying to weather the same crisis.

    Business groups and California officials applauded the Bryson nomination, but some congressmen, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have threatened to stall the nomination until they can get a look at trade agreements the White House is negotiating. Additionally, some of the seriously conservative sects of Congress are a little concerned that Bryson is too green (in values, not in experience). Bryson has been an advocate of solar energy and plug-in vehicles and recently advised a task force on climate change for the state of California.

    Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma has announced that he will fight the nomination because Bryson helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council, which he labeled a “radical environmental organization.” (Bryson was among a group of young lawyers who helped establish the organization in the early 1970s.) Inhofe is not a proponent of climate change theory, believing it to be a hoax, and has a pattern of opposing environmental groups, causes and promotions. So, that particular opposition was to be expected.

    Is Bryson green? Absolutely. Is that a bad thing? No, I don’t think so. The man did help create a large environmental movement. He does push initiatives that he believes in, and that does include a lot of alternative energy. But, the bottom line is this: Bryson knows power. And, you don’t bump up exports and increase those commerce numbers without knowing how to make, ship, control and tackle the energy side of the equation.

    Sure, Bryson graduated from Yale and founded the Natural Resources Defense Council. He also joined Edison International in 1984 and took over the company in 1990, just a couple of years before industry headlines trumpeted deregulation woes and financial drama for most California utilities. He retired from the position in 2008 having helped that company regain footing in a business environment that was financially toxic.

    It seems a smart combination for Obama’s alternative energy agenda: Bryson’s both the man who knows the industry and the man who believes in the cause. He has the passion and knows the path to get there. It’s a very solid call for the Administration’s goals to make us, as a country, leaner and greener.

    The fact that not everyone agrees with those goals is just another day in D.C., really.

    Who’s protecting the Kentucky energy consumer?

    May 26, 2011 10:36 AM by Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor
    This week, Louisville Gas and Electric Company and Kentucky Utilities Company told the world they needed money. They trumpeted the fact that environmental regs on coal are going to cost them a mint or two, to the tune of $2.5 billion. In fact, they plan to increase rates for power consumers by nearly 19 percent to cover those costs. (The fine print tells you that will occur slowly over the next five years, not be implemented the moment of approval.)

    And cleaning up coal can be expensive: Scrubbers and baghouse systems don’t come cheap. ($1.4 billion for scrubbers and over a million for baghouse systems.)

    Paul W. Thompson, senior vice president of energy services for the two utilities stated, "While costs continue to increase as a result of the federal EPA regulations, we are committed to providing our customers a secure energy supply in the least-cost manner. We have carefully studied the options to meet the stricter regulations and have developed a compliance plan that will least impact our customers and the Commonwealth.”

    Thompson went on to hedge that statement, however, by explaining that a number of utilities will be hit with these regs at the same time, leading to high demand for materials, which could increase costs higher than their original estimates.

    The rate announcement led to a small angry explosion by Kentucky governor Steve Beshear, who released an answering statement of his own in which he lamented “that too many Kentucky families are still struggling in this tough economy” so he’s just darn “disappointed that the federal government’s war on coal, which I am fighting against every single day, is now threatening to cause drastic utility rate increases.”

    In fact, he called the regulations “mandates” and labeled them “unfair” and “unfunded,” along with “devastating” to the state’s coal industry.

    The utilities say they cannot help but pass on these costs from these regulations, but they are keeping the costs as low as possible for consumers. The government says that these regulations are necessary to fight air pollution and global warming and allow those consumers a better quality of life, along with helping health, allergy and asthma issues. The governor says that he’s protecting the consumer by fighting those air pollution mandates---a fight no one believes he’s going to win. Can the consumer be equally protected by all?

    And even the Kentucky Coal Association has been in this tussle over customer interest.

    See, this fight isn’t new. Those regulations have been on the books, with the due date coming, for quite awhile. And coal-heavy utilities have been weighing just what to do with their newly expensive (formerly cheap) generation sources that rely on those chunky black squares. But, no one really saves for this sort of thing; that’s what rate increases are for.

    In fact, just last month the same two utilities discussed here hinted that they might switch some of their older coal plants over to natural gas to save money for that consumer, a move that brought another angry response, this time from Kentucky Coal Association president Bill Bissett who stated a firm belief that it’s still much cheaper to retrofit coal than to switch to gas and that he believes coal power will be around for “generations to come.”

    The current release on the expected rate increase doesn’t include the direct statement that natural gas may take over the plants they want to close, but it does reinforce the concept that closing three plants is more than possible, it’s highly probably.
    In the end, the regulations will not be removed, despite the governor’s protest. And, the utilities will likely get a percentage (or all) of what they are requesting for a rate increase. (For 2012, that’s about 2 bucks a month per bill.)

    I’m curious, though, about where the Kentucky power consumer falls in this equation. Does he feel protected by the utilities, the feds, the governor or the association? And, does he want to fork over an extra 2 bucks a month for cleaner air to breathe, or does he think the costs should be born by stakeholders and not him?

    One local TV channel’s website covered the rate news and quoted the company spokesman heavily as pointing a finger at the government and literally saying they were “forced” to do this and “we don’t have a choice.” But, I’m not sure their consumers believe that.

    One comment on the article noted that “upgrades” to his own house and car came out of his own pocket. So, he didn’t understand why those costs were being passed along to him. Also in the comments section: pleas for better customer service if the rates go up, for executives of the utilities to take a pay cut rather than upping the rates on struggling consumers, and confusion about why these costs don’t come out of the utility’s profits

    So far, it seems, the utilities will bear the brunt of consumer anger about being so thoroughly protected, not the government, a position I’m sure the utilities were hoping desperately to avoid.

    The NERC CIP Evolution

    May 19, 2011 4:55 PM by Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor
    The North American Reliability Corp.’s critical infrastructure protection rules (NERC-CIP) continue to impact power utilities. That is about to change, but not lessen. It’s only bound to get more detailed and restrictive as NERC CIP grows and adapts to the industry and the smart grid.

    “Security and compliance are spelled differently in the English language because they actually mean different things,” said Tim Roxey, director of risk assessment and technology division for the North American Reliability Corp. at a session during the UTC Telecom Conf. in Long Beach May 10-13, 2011.

    “We have a culture of compliance when we should really have a culture of security,” he added, noting the continuing discussion about whether adhering to the CIP rules really makes a utility more secure. But, Roxey said, the industry needs to work with what it’s got at the moment, which is compliance and that’s where NERC CIP comes into the related security equation.

    They’re starting with compliance and hoping to evolve into real security protection as versions change to meet smart grid needs. That process can be painful, complex and problematic. But, there has been progress.

    “Do I really gotta? Yeah I really gotta,” Roxey joked, rolling through a short history of the CIPs.

    “When I started in this industry, the communications infrastructure was a guy named Joe who basically lived in the substation and had a phone,” he said. “Now it’s this incredibly complex system.”

    “It’s almost impossible for a company to remain compliant, let alone secure, because of the complexity,” Roxey said, noting that the complexity moves past just communications and that guy named Joe to all other areas covered by CIP.

    Details and differences are the history of NERC CIP, noted the panelist that followed Roxey. And those differences and details created the complexity issue, which is connected to the compliance versus security argument.

    “NERC CIP is all about compliance and not about security,” said Jerome Farquharson, practice manager at Burns and McDonnell. “Eighty to 90 percent of what a utility is doing with NERC CIP is paperwork.”

    “Compliance doesn’t necessarily make you secure,” Farquharson added. “But, as we grow and change, we are trying to put more emphasis on security.”

    Farquharson noted clarity about critical assets---what they are and where they start and stop in the utility structure---is a huge dream of the industry, though the standards haven’t quite gotten to that point of clarity yet. But, both Farquharson and Roxey do see that clarity coming.

    So, NERC CIP is growing, and perhaps having a few pains with that cultural evolution. But, what a utility needs to focus on is what’s in front of them right now.

    “At the end of the day, it is what it is,” Farquharson said, stressing that compliance is required, despite some issues with clarity. “We may not like the system. That’s fine, but we need to do it.”

    Farquharson does see NERC CIP becoming the “de facto” standard in this area. So, a utility shouldn’t expect the standards to just go the way of the dodo.

    Perhaps someone should call Joe down at the substation and make sure he has a pencil.

    This is an excerpt from a longer article scheduled for the August issue of POWERGRID International magazine.

    LIVE FROM UTC TELECOM: Let's look at data centers

    May 12, 2011 12:35 PM by Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

    Before a utility can discuss data security with a customer, it has to have and hold the data itself. Data was the centerpoint of all the sessions at UTC Telecom 2011 in Long Beach May 10-13. From use to security, it was all about those small little slices of very important information.

    During the case study on data centers on Wed., May 11, experts questioned whether current data centers have the capacity to support the data that’s about to hit with the smart grid, specifically smart metering and demand response pilots and programs---all that information that impacts a consumer.

    “We’re adapting our infrastructure for a very bright smart grid future,” said Bud Voss, chief technology officer at Comverge during the session. “Our data center needs and our back office needs are ever-changing.”

    Comverge works with more than 500 utilities and with data needs for communications and the smart grid. Comverge currently operates a data center in Pennsylvania for their demand response program, though they are now building a main location in Atlanta, leaving the Pennsylvania operations as a back-up.

    With the smart grid, there is a shift in data collection from one-way to two-way with info coming in and going out every 15 minutes. Voss noted that this creates a massive change, and, now, Comverge needs to analyze business data in real time, which requires expansion.

    Comverge suggests adopting an architectural approach to improve security and scalability with the bigger and better data center the smart grid may require. This new and shiny process is all about creating a solid grid design capable not just of data use and sorting but takes into account potential disaster issues and even federal requirements like NERC CIP.

    “You have to allow for access points and higher levels of traffic with the smart grid,” said Sanket Amberkar, senior manager of smart grid with Cisco Systems, which worked with Comverge on the data center update. Amberkar also stressed a need for robustness in this type of system and making sure they are scaled even with field deployments.

    So, the first step to securing that customer data starts with making sure your data center is up to snuff.

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