As members of modern civilization, we enjoy any number of luxuries that our ancestors had no idea could even exist. Food preparation and delivery systems allow us to drop by our local supermarket and within minutes stock up on groceries that 500 years ago would have either been impossible or taken months to assemble. Want to spend the weekend in Toronto and catch a concert or Leafs game? No problem, thanks to airlines and aircraft that will whisk you thousands of miles away in a few hours. Bored? Grab the remote control, hit the couch in your heated/air conditioned living room and flash up Netflix on your fiber enabled 4K TV.
Several years ago my niece was married in a splendid ceremony near Jasper, Alberta. A few months later she accepted a great job back east, so she and her husband packed up and headed to their new home in Toronto. They arrived early in the day on Thursday, August 14, 2003. Shortly after they dropped their bags in their suburban apartment, the power went out.
And it stayed out. Unbeknownst to them and millions of other Canadian and US residents at the time, a series of events involving power system monitoring, transmission lines and trees had blacked out a huge swath of the heavily populated central and eastern portion of North America. And they were about to learn how valuable electricity really is in our society.
Since the newlyweds had literally just set foot in their new quarters, the fridge and cupboards were empty, so finding a meal became their priority. With little cash on hand, they set out through the darkened streets to find an ATM, only to realize that no power meant the money machines were of little use. Stores and restaurants were also closed, so they stayed hungry that day.
It took them until late Friday to find a small pizza place that was open. By now they had also recognized that credit card machines were about as much use as a brick when the banking systems were down, which had happened. Life as we know it had fundamentally come to a standstill.
In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow published a landmark paper on the theory of human motivation, and developed a “hierarchy of needs” as shown below. The basic needs of life are at the bottom and as those are taken care of, he suggested that we are able to move up to higher achievement levels. If you think about our needs as they apply to electricity, I think you’ll find that it fits into the lower part of the pyramid. If you’re not sure, take it away and see how well we function.
Access to a reliable and ongoing source of electricity has become almost as essential as air, food and water. As a result of the eastern blackout the regulatory agencies weighed in and set new requirements for system inspection and the management of vegetation (trees, not vegetable gardens). However, there is an increasing phenomenon that is having and will continue to have a dramatic effect on the continued flow of electricity – the age of the power system.
After the Second World War, a pent up demand for products and services led to a significant increase in business across North America, and an expanded electric power system was needed to accommodate this new activity. This addition of new power facilities continued throughout the 1950’s, 1960’s and much of the 1970’s. The engineered life span of many of these new assets was about 50-60 years, which means that today many towers, poles, wires and substations are past their “best before” date.
The renewal and expansion of the power system was followed by a couple of decades of cost restraint. Since much of the North American power system was relatively new, it could withstand a reduction in maintenance effort. However, over the ensuing years the facilities started to feel the effects of age, storms and increased power demand.
In 1960, a total of 200 billion retail gigawatt hours were sold in the US. Canadian figures are similar relative to our population. By 2013 this number had climbed seven fold to just under 1400 billion (Source: https://www.eia.gov/state/seds/data.cfm?incfile=/state/seds/sep_use/res/use_res_US.html&sid=US). Electricity use has become even more popular, and while demand side management programs have helped somewhat to reduce consumption, there are a lot more electrons flowing through the North American system than in years past.
Utility operators are likewise facing challenges. Circuit outages are getting more and more difficult to schedule, and our 24/7 world dictates that power is continuously available. Taking a line or piece of substation equipment out of service to perform maintenance increasingly means that customers will be out of the electric power they value so highly. Of course, deferring or canceling required maintenance is ultimately a recipe for unplanned outages, which is obviously bad for everyone involved. For many operators, standby circuits and additional capacity that allows power flow to be moved around to other parts of the system are relegated to the “fond memory” category.
So, with aging facilities and a customer base that is reluctant to accept the lights going out, what should be done? Fortunately, there are options. Keeping the power on while performing maintenance or even increasing system capacity is something that we do at Allteck everyday. It can only be done with a very well trained workforce and procedural rigour that ensures the safety of the public, the workers and the power system itself, but it achieves one outcome exceptionally well. Power continues to flow which translates into happy customers, whether they are operating a manufacturing facility, reading a bedtime story to their children or just trying to sell some newlyweds a pizza.
You have a power system to maintain, and customers to keep happy. Fortunately, even with an aging power system to take care of, you can do both.