Electric utilities are winning reliability battles against squirrels, storms and hackers
Did you know squirrels, lightning and trees have something in common? All three can know out your electricity.
Electric cooperatives and publicly owned utilities work hard to keep your lights on all the time, but “you’re going to have power outages, and that’s just the way it is,” says Tony Thomas, senior principal engineer with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
An electric utility’s basic job of keeping the power flowing 24/7 calls for maintaining a complex network of power plants, poles and wires. But it also means battling the unpredictable.
Thomas cites the top three troublemakers to electric reliability:
- Trees falling on power lines and other interferences from vegetation.
- Lightning strikes.
- Animals going about their daily routines, especially squirrels chewing on electrical equipment.
“Utilities do an awfully good job, but Mother Nature gets in the way sometimes,” says Thomas.
Humans also contribute to power outages. Vandals deliberately damage electrical equipment and drivers accidentally crash into utility poles.
Despite the challenges, statistics show the lights are almost always on.
According to numbers collected from electric utilities, power in the United States is incredibly reliable. The percentage of time the average American has electricity at the flip of a switch is 99.97.
Equally impressive, Thomas says, is those numbers don’t change much.
“I don’t see big swings from year to year,” he explains. “If things are fairly consistent, that means the utility is operating about as efficiently as it can.”
Nonetheless, utilities still try to improve on that reliability.
Techniques being used to foil critter catastrophes include snake barriers around substations, buzzard shields on transmission towers and mesh coverings on wood poles to protect them from woodpeckers.
Utilities operate extensive right-of-way programs to keep vegetation away from power lines—from clearing underbrush to public awareness campaigns asking people not to plant trees where they can fall on power lines.
Those efforts can be aided by digital software that forecasts the growth of trees and other plants so utilities can prune branches before they cause a problem.
Other software tries to manage lightning by analyzing the age and wear on utility equipment, minimizing damage from lightning strikes so equipment can be replaced before it fails.
Fighting storms and squirrels are two ways to keep the power on. By far the biggest task comes from building, maintaining and updating the massive machinery of the nation’s electric grid.
More than 8,500 power plants generate electricity that is shipped through 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines. Banks of substations and transformers step-down that voltage to send it to homes and businesses through 5.5 million miles of distribution lines.
Keeping that network up and running requires planning among utilities to anticipate how electricity will be used in the future. Part of that reliability planning focuses on protecting the electricity system from computer-based digital attacks.
Bridgette Bourge is among those overseeing how digital technology affects reliability for electric cooperatives and their consumer-members. As director of government affairs for NRECA, she sees both positives and the negatives to the latest internet-based, or cyber, technology.
“Cyber helps a lot on reliability because it gives us the ability to monitor and know everything right away,” she says. “But whenever you increase reliability through a technology, you do potentially open up vulnerabilities as well from the security angle.”
For any organization—including electric utilities—the benefits of the internet come infested with mischief makers.
Bourge says it is routine for a company to receive tens of thousands of attempts each day to break into its computer network. Those “knocks” at the cyber door can come from individuals, countries and organizations, or from an army of automated “bots” roaming the internet worldwide, testing for weaknesses where a hacker could enter.
A troublemaker inside the computer network could affect electric service. That is why NRECA has organized a variety of cyber reliability programs.
Bourge says those programs aim to help protect against a range of threats—from broad attempts to shut down parts of the electric grid to more focused efforts to corrupt pieces of software.
NRECA’s cyber protection efforts include working closely with the nation’s electric cooperatives to share techniques for protecting utility systems from internet invaders. NRECA also works closely with federal government cybersecurity groups in the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security.
NRECA is part of a national program to create a cyber mutual assistance agreement. Much like how groups of lineworkers from an electric co-op travel to help restore power after a hurricane, these cyber agreements would mobilize teams of information technology experts in the case of a cyber incident.
“You can’t solve cybersecurity,” Bourge says. “No matter what you do today, the bad guys are going to figure out a way around it tomorrow. You have to keep thinking about the next step.”
Bourge says community-based, member-led electric co-ops have a unique interest in protecting the reliability of the local community’s energy supply.
“Electric cooperatives take cybersecurity very seriously,” Bourge says. “It’s built into their DNA.”