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Commission recap 02-11-2020: Drones, new hardware, tree trimming and more to help system reliability

A wide range of efforts to minimize power interruptions and improve overall system reliability were highlighted during Tuesday's commission meeting. One new tool the utility is exploring are the use of drones. Crews would utilize drones to assist with patrolling power lines and inspecting substations.

Power Delivery Engineer Will Coe, told commissioners the use of drones is a common practice for this type of work among larger utilities.

Infrared cameras on the drones can detect heat and identify spots that show signs of "electricity leakage," and may be prone to potential outages. Drones can also reduce overall inspection time, especially when powerlines are in areas that are more difficult to access.

"I can see this eliminating problems before they even show up," said Commissioner Nelson Cox.

Commissioner Tom Flint added, "that's pretty good." When referring to the ability of the infrared cameras to tell you where the hotspots are located on the system.

Commissioners were also updated about additional improvement efforts being used to help reduce the likelihood of poles fires. Efforts include replacing metal "cutouts" on poles with polymer ones, while also more widely utilizing fiberglass cross arms on poles.

Long dry spells during typical summers in the Columbia Basin can lead to an excessive amount of dust and dirt settling on the components of poles. As debris settles on these components a light rain can cause the dirt to become electrically charged, resulting in heat transferring to the wood pole and starting a fire. The new components are expected to help reduce the likelihood of pole fires.

Senior Manager of Power Production Construction and Maintenance, Mike Tongue also told commissioners Grant PUD's tree trimming program is one of the larger successes the department has utilized in helping control system interruptions. The program allows crews, when owner permission has been obtained, to remove trees planted under or near power lines that could impact system reliability. This approach is advantageous compared to just pruning problematic trees every few years, he said.

See the full presentation here on pages 09-18 and listen to the discussion which begins at 1:37:55 on the commission audio here.

Grant PUD expects to end 2019 under budget

Grant PUD expects to end 2019 nearly $18 million under budget, due largely to rescheduling of budgeted capital projects or changes in the scope of capital projects.

Total expenditures are expected to end 2019 at $250.3 million, down from the $268.2 million budgeted. The total includes capital spending of $123.7 million, down from $144.9 budgeted, and operations-and-maintenance spending of $126.7, over budget by $3.3 million.

Drivers of the budget overage for operations and maintenance included staff time related to the new Rate Schedule 17 for evolving industries, additional leadership consulting, financial consulting and payroll for an extra electric-system-related dock crew.

The budget report shows that commissioners overspent their $60,000 budget by $78,399 — a 231% increase. Staff is investigating the cause of the overage and will report back to the commission at the next commission meeting, Feb. 25.

See the entire budget presentation here, pages 1 through 8. Listen to the discussion at 1:11:45 on the commission audio here.

Analysis shows transformers are in good shape, despite age

An analysis concluded in late 2019 shows that the 87 transformers in Grant PUD's electric system are at least at mid-life or better, despite the advanced age of some of them.

Transformers increase or decrease the voltage of electrical current, depending on its intended final use. They're filled with oil, which acts as an insulator. A transformer's condition is determined by the chemical make-up of its oil, which Grant PUD tests annually, Power Delivery Engineer Will Coe told commissioners.

The average age of Grant PUD's transformers is 24.2 years. Of the total 87 transformers, 28 are older than 30 years, four are older than 60 years and the oldest is 69, Coe said.

The condition of a transformer isn't necessarily related to its age, Coe said. Royal City's 69-year-old transformer is slated for replacement within the next two years, but its condition is rated at "middle age."

The analysis concluded that Grant PUD's two mobile substations, which can be moved into position to restore power when a substation fails, are of too low a voltage to suitably replace the 41-megawatt industrial substations in the system. Plans are underway to buy a 50-megawatt portable substation. Grant PUD's industrial customers would cover the mobile substation's $4.5 million to $5 million cost.

View the full presentation here, pages 49-58. Hear the discussion at 3:27:55 on the commission audio.

Commissioners also:

Approved payment for electrical-related boring as commissioners unanimously agreed to pay HuntCo Enterprises for two contracts dated March 3, 2019, one for $24,669 and the other for $15,264. The payments are for drilling work that exceeded projected costs due to more difficult terrain encountered. The first contract involved drilling under Highway 243 to install conduit to support load growth in the Mattawa area. The second was to install conduit to replace a faulty underground cable near Shree's Truck Stop in George. Read more here, pages 7-9.

Received an update on the status of legislative topics, predominantly focused on state issues. Tuesday marked the official halfway point of the state's 2020 legislative session.

Senior Policy Analysist, Cliff Sears, said there a number of bills being monitored during this session and the status can change quickly. The upcoming days in Olympia will determine which bills may progress through this year's legislative session.

Sears also shared with commissioners the exploratory work that has gone into trying to identify grant funding opportunities to help pay for fiber-optic network expansion.

Federal and state rural broadband funding programs exist. At the federal level, additional efforts are needed to determine Grant PUD's eligibility and general funding requirements.

Less funding is available at the state level, but Sears continues to work with the new State Director of Broadband Russ Elliot as the Public Works Board makes its way through the rulemaking process as part of Washington Statewide Broadband Act, approved last year.

See the full presentation on pages 38-48 of the presentation materials and hear the discussion which begins at 4:00:30 of the commission audio.

Heard about the work accomplished and the lessons learned in 2019 by Grant PUD's Information Technology Department. Chief Technology Officer, Derin Bluhm outlined the group's busy year that was filled with many significant accomplishments.

Efforts included the deployment of the company's HR Human Capital Management System, Deployment of Office 365, Maximo scheduling tools, and ARCOS crew dispatching and work management systems.

"We are delivering capabilities and changing the way we work, but we're not trying to just load people (employees) up with new stuff that they don't find value in. We trying to be responsible with our technology," said Bluhm.

The group plans to apply the lessons they learned from 2019 as they continue to move forward on additional key technology projects for the organization.

See the full presentation here on pages 19-30 and hear the discussion which begins at 2:22:30 of the commission audio.