Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Transmission & Distribution’ Category

Cyber-Security Grid

The Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552) was originally enacted in 1966, and has been amended a few times since. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that “[t]he basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). There are, however, nine exemptions, including three related specifically to law enforcement, under which the federal government can withhold information that would otherwise be disclosed under the FOIA.

At federal agencies today, and particularly at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, those exemptions from disclosure have been so broadly construed that one can say with reason that FOIA has been administratively repealed. Instead of starting with a policy of full disclosure, from which certain specific categories of information are carved out, federal agencies instead start with St. Peter’s maxim: they’d rather cut off their left hand than allow it to obtain information about their right. Imagine being at the British Admiralty circa 1906 and receiving a request from Kaiser Wilhelm for a complete set of plans for the H.M.S. Dreadnought. That will give you an idea of the view contemporary federal agencies take toward FOIA requests.

Like water in a state of nature, less interesting work in a bureaucracy always flows downhill, where it is handled by persons of lower seniority and even less authority. This leads to over-classification of agency materials as top secret and exempt from FOIA. After all, if you’ve been at your agency job for four years or less and your responsibilities include responding to FOIA requests, why would you release something and risk your superior’s ire, if not your job? Better to pick out an exemption or two from the FOIA menu and send back a response of

REQUEST DENIED

Of course FOIA provides for remedies to obtain disclosure, and those often work for large media companies and the like. But for the vast majority of Americans who lack the resources to commence a FOIA enforcement action in federal district court, those remedies are worse than useless. They’re a cynical joke played on the American people.

Now we have another FERC FOIA dust-up. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) submitted to FERC a Notice of Penalty against an electric utility for 127 cybersecurity violations between 2015 and 2018. The company agreed to pay a record-setting $10 million fine its cybersecurity violations. According to some reports the utility is Duke Energy, though that hasn’t been officially confirmed. FERC doesn’t want to publicly release the name of the electric utility.

Why shouldn’t the public be able to know whether their utility is the one that’s risking the reliability of their electricity supply and distribution system because they’re unable to get their cybersecurity act together? These violations, and the $10 million fine, are the fault of the utility’s management, not its ratepayers. Shouldn’t the ratepayers be allowed to know whether their utility is going to try to pass this cost onto them through rates?

Public Citizen, a watchdog group, has demanded that FERC disclose the utility’s name. They have stated that

“Concealing the name of the recipient of the largest fine in history sends a confusing message to the public that large penalties do not come with full accountability,” said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program and author of the filing. “Future violators may be able to similarly hide behind the veil of anonymity. Moreover, keeping the public in the dark about the cybersecurity track record of our electric utilities may create a false sense of security and reduce the likelihood of more public awareness and vigilance needed to protect cybersecurity.”

The real problem is that bureaucracies like FERC do not want the curtain pulled back on anything they do, regardless of whether any exemption applies. Any unplanned exposure of their operations risks upsetting their messaging and tarnishing the public image they want to create. Every public performance by an agency has to be staged just so, or else, in this internet media-driven age, a public relations catastrophe could occur.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

 

Electric utilities have to worry about a lot of stuff that sounds mundane, including that part of system maintenance that goes under the heading of “vegetation management.” In plain English, that means trimming trees so that they don’t interfere with transmission and distribution lines. The problem is very large and very complex because many miles of utility lines run through remote areas in which trees and brush, left to grow over decades (plural), can cause problems for both inspection and access for maintenance. In the eastern U.S., vegetation management is primarily a matter of system reliability: A branch or fallen tree can press one wire against another, causing a short or other disruption in service.

But in the western U.S., vegetation management is also very much a safety concern. A tree branch doesn’t need to touch a line to cause a fire. If it gets too close, electricity can arc from the line to the branch. If the branch is dry, which is often the case in rural California, it can burst into flame. Sparks, embers or burning fragments of the branch may drop to the ground. The ground is usually full of dry leaves and underbrush. Combine that with strong winds and within a few minutes a vast area of dry forest will be turned into a blazing inferno. The proximity of suburbs and exurbs to these forested areas only increases the risk to lives and property.

California generally, and PG&E in particular, has had a very tough history in this regard. going back decades. The Camp Fire, which raged through much of last November in PG&E’s service territory, shows that vegetation management is literally a matter of life and death: 86 persons died in the Camp Fire, which also destroyed 14,000 homes, more than 500 businesses, and 4,300 other structures. Estimates of damages are in the range of $7 billion.

CNN reports that California utility PG&E will file Chapter 11 at the end of this month. It’s believed that a PG&E power line came in contact with nearby trees and sparked the fire. The Camp Fire comes on the heels of a series of wildfires, also blamed on PG&E, in 2017. Those fires caused $10 billion in damages and 44 deaths. In 11 of those fires, state investigators found the company violated codes regarding brush clearance near its power lines or had made related violations.

 

Read Full Post »

FERC Chairman Kevin McIntyre passed away this past Wednesday after a battle with cancer. Our condolences to his family and colleagues.

His passing leaves FERC with four remaining commissioners, two Republicans and two Democrats. According to the Washington Post, as of January 3, 2019, of 707 federal executive branch appointments requiring Senate confirmation (like the FERC chairmanship), 127 have no nominee. Given the other storms that are likely to hit the White House in 2019, the FERC chairmanship may not be high on the list of the administration’s priorities.

Read Full Post »

transmission line

The transmission lines you see along the highway may strike you as ugly eyesores or as proud monuments to modern civilization. But whatever your point of view, one thing is certain: every one of those lines is the result of a complex physical and economic calculation, including a number of forward projections on load and capacity. Plus, while some stand-up comedians are called high voltage, the real high voltage is in those lines. Why is the voltage high?

Under the second law of thermodynamics, whenever power is transferred, some of it is lost. In the case of transmission lines, losses take the form of heat emanating from the conductors, leakage of current across insulators, ionization of pathways in the air surrounding the conductors, or just current running to ground. Also, magnetic and electric fields are created around the conductors, which create inductance and capacitance in the lines. The short answer is that the higher the voltage, the smaller the losses.

Under Ohm’s Law, the voltage (V) is equal to the product of the current (I) and the resistance (R) in the circuit, or V = I*R. The power (P) is the amount of the energy absorbed in the circuit (i.e., delivered to a load such as a customer’s machinery), which is equal to the voltage (V) times the current (I), or P = V*I. The power lost (PL) when current flows through a conductor is the product of the resistance (R) of the conductor through which the current flows and the square of that current. PL = I2*R. Thus, if you lower the current (I), you reduce the amount of power lost.

But if you lower the current, under P = V*I you would have to raise the voltage in order to keep the same amount of power going to the load; that is, the power must be constant, so under P = V * I, V has to increase if I is lowered.

The reverse is also true. If you raise the voltage, you can decrease the current and keep the power constant. So if we were to raise the voltage by a factor of 100, the current would be reduced to 1/100th of its former value.

Going back to our loss equation, since power lost is proportional to the square of the current (I2*R), reducing current by a factor of 100 reduces losses by a factor of 10,000 (.01 * .01 = .0001).

And that’s why high voltage makes sense.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Linemen

The online magazine Transmission & Distribution World today re-ran an earlier article on the dangers faced by electric utility workers. Though it describes a really brutal accident, it merits reading if only to be reminded about the danger that some workers face every day as part of their job — more dangerous than police and fire. You can read the full article here.

Read Full Post »

Tax Reform

The GOP-passed tax reform law, a/k/a the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, lowered the corporate federal income tax from a maximum of 35% to a flat rate of 21%.

Numerous transmission utilities file tariffs with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that are based on a cost of service revenue requirement. The expense of federal corporate income tax is one of those costs of service. When a corporation’s tax rate goes down from a maximum of 35% to a flat 21%, its income tax expense goes down, and thus its cost of service revenue requirement goes down. So, one would think that when transmission utilities’ tax rates go down, as they have, that benefit might flow through (or is that trickle down) to ratepayers.

Nope.

No transmission utility filed any amendments to its tariffs to reflect the new, lowered tax rate. Maybe they thought nobody would notice it, and they could pocket that 14% difference. (“Oh boy!!!).

So on March 15, 2018, FERC opened a series of new proceedings requiring that these transmission utilities either lower their rates to reflect the tax cut, or show cause why they should not be required to do so.

Your tax dollars at work.

Read Full Post »

NYC Substation

The New York Times today reported that Russian hackers had gained access to nuclear plants and electricity grid controls, and would have been able to shut off the power in the United States at will.

That is deadly serious stuff.

More amazing still, it was the Trump Administration, that leveled the accusation against Russia. Putin may regard that as an act of disloyalty by Trump, perhaps triggering his release of kompromat on the Donald.

Perhaps he’ll announce a 25% tariff on Steele dossiers.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »