By Joshua Smith, RRC Substation Group Manager
We live in the era of an aging workforce and aging assets. These two make for a dangerous combination. Highly experienced people are leaving the workforce and taking with them the institutional knowledge that helps keep the aging assets online. Specialized forecasting skills were not needed to predict this, we knew this was coming, but what have we done about it?
I worked various roles for a large electrical utility. My two years in Asset Management performing asset risk assessment taught me that the energy infrastructure has aged, and not like a fine wine. Most, if not all, utilities know this is a challenge, but how many have taken steps to mitigate the risks posed by this challenge? There is a lack of people with the needed skills and knowledge to replace the retiring work force. There is already such a large hole that many utilities find themselves in reaction only mode. But what is needed is strategic planning to address the short and the long term, not just the right now.
Plans need to be developed by examining the system and looking at the potential for equipment to fail. Every utility has equipment they are working diligently to replace now, but what is the next group of equipment that will fail? If time is taken to examine this question, the answer is not difficult to obtain. More questions should be asked, questions like: How old is that “old” transformer? Are there a number of transformers that same age? How many solid-state relays are still in the system? Has maintenance been deferred, and how many times? What groups of equipment are beginning to fail?
Answers to these questions need to be sought out from various places, for example, technicians and operators, retiring engineers, and manufacturers. Technicians and operators are the front line. They work with the equipment daily and typically know what equipment is beginning to fail. Many of the technicians and operators are retiring so this information needs to be gathered quickly. Ideally they will pass on the information before they exit, but decades of information does not get passed on without much effort. Retiring engineers are another quickly disappearing resource. These engineers have designed the system for years and have many insights. Manufacturers often keep and share data on their equipment that can be tapped into. Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) is a starting point. There are also curves showing the trend of equipment failures. The curves I saw a few years ago on the aging transformer fleet were a little disconcerting.
Think about transformers for a minute. It does not take long to learn the age of a transformer. Add to that its loading history, number of through faults seen, any off gassing, etc. This data can be used to create a document discussing the health of the transformer fleet. Graphs can be made and discussion generated. A similar process can be done with each component of the electrical system. It can even start with documenting only one data point (i.e. the age of the transformers) one year and adding additional data points each year. These documents can be reviewed by senior management and used to make decisions. Money needs to be allocated each budget cycle and these documents can assist in determining where.
This discussion needs to continue. If you work for a utility that has something like this is place, find a way to share the methodology with other utilities so they can benefit from what you learned. If you work for a utility and no one has started the conversation, then initiate it. The needs are real, and it is better to be proactive than reactive.