Learning from Sun Tzu: How utilities can prepare for the next Major Event

Days into the New Year, sheets of ice were coating the ground, homes, vehicles, poles and hydro wires. Was this the first Major Event — as we call widespread power outages — of 2014?

Looking back at 2013, there were power outages. Then there were Power Outages, such as the Alberta Flooding in June 2013, and the December 2013 Ice Storm that impacted hundreds of thousands of people from Toronto into the Maritimes during the holiday season.

This recent storm has raised questions about reliability: How can we improve it? Can it be improved? Can we prepare for potential widespread power outages?

Photo courtesy of Toronto Hydro Corporation.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. “

In our case, Major Events are the enemy. To know this enemy, we must understand what causes outages, how to better predict them, and how to be better prepared for them.

Utilities can enter into this battle by participating in reliability programs – that is, programs that strive to improve reliability. The Canadian Electricity Association (CEA)’s Consultative Committee on Outage Statistics (CCOS) is one such program. The CCOS provides utilities an excellent forum through which to work collaboratively, reviewing and studying the data, discussing their events, and analyzing the data for patterns and trends to gain insight on current and potential issues.

Specialized subcommittees of the CCOS—some of which have been collecting data as far back as 1977—are dedicated to improving issues such as reliability for distribution, transmission system performance, and transmission and generation equipment reliability information systems.

These subcommittees help participating utilities to:

1. Gain a collective national voice on reliability and the ability to highlight performances across the country.

2. Develop insight into shared practices and lessons learned, such as asset management life cycles.

3. Improve reliability through data analysis and target areas for performance management programs.

4. Manage and plan maintenance and capital planning programs.

Each subcommittee collects and validates data at a national level while the CEA Analytics department manages the data and analysis. Subcommittees are responsible not only for ensuring the data is accurate, but that the data is useable. In a 2013 survey of participating utilities, over 91% of respondents said that the reports, data and analysis received from these programs is used in their day-to-day work, and all others indicated data and reports are being used by others in their utility.

The programs highlight areas where utilities may wish to take action. For example, they may target improved vegetation management, or upgrading insulators beyond a certain age.  Each program provides the ability to drill down further and gain additional insight through root cause analysis.

As more data becomes available due to advances in technology, participants are eager to collect more data, analyze deeper, and provide solid recommendations that will help improve reliability. As we get to know the enemy, we will not fear the next big ice storm.

Dan Gent is Director of Analytics at the Canadian Electricity Association. Follow him on Twitter: @CEADanGent.