Reliability: We'll be there before the pizza

Remember when Domino's promised a free pizza if they didn't deliver within 30 minutes? They've dropped the guarantee due to safety concerns, but the idea lives on — with the Marquette Board of Light and Power, recognized as a Reliable Public Power Provider by the American Public Power Association.

If your power goes out in this lakefront community, "You can call and get a pizza, and we'll be there before the pizza," said David Lynch, MBLP's assistant director for utility operations. The utility's average outage response time is 23 minutes.
The city of Marquette is nestled on the southern edge of Michigan's Lake Superior. It is buffeted by high winds and other nasty weather, especially in the winter, which used to cause area residents, not to mention MBLP, major headaches due to downed power lines.

However, since 1989, the overall outage time per account has dropped by 66 percent to 30 minutes, and outage time per occurrence has dropped by about 55 percent, said Lynch. A pretty good track record for a company with 17,000 customers and 250 square miles to cover.

Why Utilities Upped Their Game
MBLP's efforts are part of a growing push by utilities to make the U.S. power grid more reliable.
Electrical disruptions are inevitable on the massive U.S. electric grid, which the Department of Energy sizes at 642,000 miles of high-voltage transmission line and 6.3 million miles of distribution line. Annually, power outages affect from 13.2 million to more than 41.8 million people, according to data collected by Eaton's Blackout Tracker for 2008—2015.

Weather is a big part of the problem. Between 2003 and 2012, an estimated 679 widespread power outages occurred due to severe weather. Rural areas, especially those that are heavily treed, are particularly hard hit. High-density public power communities are less susceptible to outages, because they have fewer miles per customer and, in some locations, underground distribution lines, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As our world becomes increasingly digital, outages deny us more than just Netflix and phone charging. Our economy pays a big price, as much as $70 billion annually, according to the Department of Energy.

While storm intensity, often considered an act of God, is beyond the utility's control, analytics advancements have increasingly given utilities better means to fight back. New data sources help utilities predict and prevent damage. As a result, they save money, develop improved business opportunities, and strengthen relationships with customers in three critical business areas: cost reduction, improvement, and customer engagement, according to the 2016 report by strategic consultant Bain & Company, "How Utilities Are Deploying Data Analytics Now."

Here are the actions some public power utilities are taking in each of these areas to achieve critical financial and service goals.

Cost Reduction
Data analytics can help increase capital productivity and save on operations and maintenance expenditures. For example, MBLP leverages its storm and outage data, so the utility can act based on predictive analysis.

"In predictive mode, we can monitor transfer and circuit loading on individual feeders down to the secondary level and predict if we are going to have a problem — and get out there before it occurs," said MBLP's Lynch.

Predicting and locating potential outages before they occur saves money and reduces risk by deploying capital more optimally, according to Bain & Company. Further, data analytics helps utilities understand their procurement needs better by weighing spending against value. A point not lost on Springfield, Missouri.

This city sees it all. Seated in the center of the country, Springfield gets the sometimes fast and furious impacts of all four seasons. These include hurricanes, ice storms, and tornadoes, said Brent McKinney, director of electric transmission and distribution for City Utilities of Springfield.

The utility serves 111,000 electric meters. McKinney said it has begun to use smart meters to collect data, and analytics to sort it all out.

Sometimes better data collection leads to surprising results. Because data collection is becoming more accurate, the utility expects to score worse on frequency of outages — not because it is having more outages but because it is better at detecting them.

And being better at detecting them makes the utility better at doing something about them. McKinney said the utility has undertaken what it calls its 3—10 Program. "We find areas that within the last 12 months have had three outages or 10 hours of outages of power in a year…we consider that unacceptable," he said. The utility determines a cause for every outage in those areas and addresses them.

Lesson learned? While it is not a panacea, using data analysis can be a cost-effective way to improve reliability.
"Data can really help you effectively use your maintenance dollars for outages and reliability. We have been able to use a much smaller amount of money… to get the biggest bang for the buck," McKinney said.

Reliability Improvement
Alex Hofmann, director of energy and environmental services at the American Public Power Association, takes a special interest in electric reliability.

The Association's latest version of its reliability software, the eReliability Tracker, is now available to member utilities. The software tool helps simplify utilities' decisions by providing detailed outage summary reports and utility-specific benchmarking data analysis.

"It is a web app. It lets them give us outage data in their own account. It helps them run reports, visualize their data, understand and rank certain elements of their system based on reliability," he said. "This is data many small utilities wouldn't have access to — and benchmarking that larger utilities would pay a substantial sum to get."

The eReliability Tracker is an advanced technology that is in the right place at the right time for utilities. Data collection and analysis are coming to the fore: "Advanced analytics boost reliability dramatically by preventing outages through more accurate predictions about when to replace failing equipment, or improving outage response through situational awareness (for example, automated dispatch through real-time identification of an issue) and better management of performance," said the Bain & Company report.

As a subscriber to the eReliability Tracker, a utility receives an annual national reliability report based on the software data and earns points toward its Reliable Public Power Provider, or RP3 designation.
The Association hopes its eReliability Tracker service will help member utilities understand reliability data better, benchmark more efficiently, and promote collaboration among members to improve reliability, Hofmann said. "We feel it is a really successful endeavor, and we get a lot of good feedback."

Sometimes better reliability requires a good old-fashioned dose of reality. Is there enough generating capacity? For MBLP, that's an important consideration, since it is at the "end of very, very long transmission extension cord," the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan. "If someone trips and pulls it out of the wall, we are kind of on our own out here," Lynch said.

MBLP predicted a potential for rolling blackouts if its 44-megawatt coal unit went out — the utility wouldn't have enough backup power to cover loads. So it sprang into action four years ago, and by June of this year, it expects to have the Marquette Energy Center online: a new 50-MW duel fuel natural gas reciprocating engine, equipped with diesel backup.

Analytics and new capacity are just part of the utility's extensive reliability effort. Marquette's intense winds in the spring and fall have been responsible for many of the utility's power outages. But an aggressive program to bury power lines in conduit, especially along the district's Lake Superior shoreline, has almost eliminated outages in the area.

MBLP also performs a system study every five years, with three-year audits and adjustments where needed. It has learned that summer peaks are now approaching winter peaks — which makes generation reliability a year-round concern.

Customer Engagement
When a utility understands its customers and their energy use better, it can more ably design new and more focused products and services. Bain & Company points out that data analytics have helped utilities design new products and services, such as demand-side management programs that reduce electricity use at peak times.

In addition, analytics allow utilities to provide more accurate information to customers about power outages, grid updates, and repair work by field crews, all of which can raise customer satisfaction.

Such customer engagement can also lead to strange bedfellows, but each partner should take the time to understand the needs and goals of the other to effectively work together, according to MBLP's Lynch.

He explained: Michigan is a legal medical marijuana state. Unknown to MBLP, residences were being converted to grow operations, and very, very high loads were being added to those accounts. "It's hard for us to detect until we have a problem."

Lynch noted that the increased electricity use could cause a system problem by severely overloading a secondary network and transformer. With data analytics, Lynch said that utilities can detect, and, importantly in this case, more quickly pinpoint the increase in use by the grow operations.

The utility explained to these residents the potential for power outages and encouraged them to share information about their operations and electricity use — at least as much as they were willing. It's not always been easy.

"Generally, they are pretty secretive about it because they don't want to advertise, of course. And they're not forthcoming with the information," Lynch said. But by engaging with customers, the utility can help the growers before their power goes out — and their operations go up in smoke, no pun intended.

What is RP3?
How to be a Reliable Public Power Provider

Reliability is one of the foundations of public power. The more efficiently a utility operates, the more likely it is to keep the lights on and therefore keep customers happy.
The Reliable Public Power Provider program is the public power industry's way of recognizing those utilities who set the bar not only in reliability, but also in safety, workforce development and system improvement.
The American Public Power Association's RP3 designation demonstrates to a utility's community, leaders and governing body that the utility is committed to excellence. Designations are given in Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels.
The program works on a point system. Utilities earn points for employing best practices, such as examining and containing their energy losses through excellent long-run operational decisions that result in higher performance. Applications are vetted by the RP3 expert review panel each fall. But the designation is more than a bragging point — it benefits the utility's operations overall.
Utilities who are employing the leading practices on the RP3 checklist have a better incidence rate than other utilities, by an average of 51 percent. Because of these improvements, many utilities have been able to use their RP3 designation to get better bond or insurance rates.
Visit for more information about how to participate, or email [email protected]

Find a list of RP3 designees at