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Volume 27, Issue 4

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October 30, 2007

Disaster Recovery Planning in Electric Utilities: A Message for the Planning Consultant

Written by  Samuel Mullen
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Many readers may be intimately familiar with the aspects of creating plans for data processing in banking and insurance industries. This article will introduce the types of plans which are familiar to contingency planners in electric utilities. It will also describe what utilities expect from outside consultants.

Planners are aware of the variety of contingency and disaster recovery plans which must be considered by various industries. We know from experience that fundamental decisions must be made with respect to the types of plans needed, what details must be included, and who should be involved. Electric utility planners must also make these decisions, and help to coordinate the many departments and sections that may be called upon to respond.

Utilities must continually find ways to maintain a demandingly high level of service reliability. The lights must stay on. Hospitals and medical centers must be restored from an electrical outage so the medical staff can continue to care for patients. Downed wires must be isolated and de-energized quickly to minimize danger to people. Nuclear power plant incidents must be dealt with swiftly, and with technical accuracy. Customers must receive information about electrical emergencies as quickly as it is humanly possible to assess damage. High customer electrical loads must be met on demand in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, or the utility and customers may suffer a blackout that can take several hours to restore. In a few short hours, a hurricane can force to the ground an electrical system that took nearly a century to build. For reasons like these, electric utilities must develop and maintain disaster plans.

Utilities can either develop these plans on their own, or use a consultant for the task. In some cases, the utility will employ a full-time planner to oversee the development of plans, maintain them, and hold regular tests to help ensure their usefulness. In many cases, however, utilities, need quite a few people involved, since there can be several plans installed throughout the company. Several plans cross departmental and sectional boundaries and must therefore be closely coordinated. For example, the data processing plan might require action from people who are also listed in another plan. Since all companies have limited personnel resources, the chances are favorable that several groups will be named in more than one plan.

What types of plans might you find in an electric utility? This will vary from company to company, but some common plans are listed below:

  • storm plans--plans that determine how the electrical distribution system will be restored after a severe storm.
  • nuclear plans--used for nuclear power plant emergencies.
  • public relations plans--procedures to deal with an inquisitive media (newspapers, radio, TV coverage).
  • telecommunications plans--restoring communications when they are interrupted.
  • systems restoration plans--plans for recovering from a blackout of the electrical system, particularly the high-voltage transmission grid.
  • materials management plans--emergency procedures to assist the organization with procurement of materials and services.
  • power plants--plans to address emergencies in non-nuclear power plants, e.g., coal, oil and gas fired generation.
  • data processing--DP emergency plans that include migration to a backup site to run mainframe applications.
  • facilities management plans--plans for migrating to an alternate site, given the normal site has been destroyed or made unusable.

Other plans may also be found, depending on the planning activity going on inside the utility. Every planner knows (or should know) that the need for plans must be 'sold' to management. This process can often take years, and the subsequent development of plans can also take a lot of time. For this reason, the planner must stage tests and exercises often, not only to keep the emergency organization 'well-oiled,' but to use results to point up the need for further plan development.

When a consultant looks to assist a utility with plan development, he or she should be reasonably familiar with utility operation before coming in. Utilities are closely regulated. Managers and supervisors are often people with technical backgrounds, such as engineers. With the recent downsizing of many firms, managers are strapped for available time. Organizations have been flattened to the point where many managers are doing work previously done by subordinates. While most utilities are financially stable, it can take time for consultants to get paid. Budgeting has been decentralized in some companies, but after budgets are submitted, they are often cut, and consulting services may be the first to go. Utility budgets reflect cost-cutting attempts that are taking place inside many organizations. This is done so that their energy prices remain competitive.

Don't be surprised to find that the utility does all its planning in-house. Utility people pride themselves on knowing how a power system operates and knowing what to do when something goes wrong. Very often, they aren't willing to go into a lot of trouble to educate you, as a consultant. Before you come in, review, if you can, the various systems that utilities use to serve their customers. When it comes time to discuss the details of what they need from a consultant, this may help you gain credibility, and perhaps, a contract.

When you do come in, you may find yourself sitting across from a small group, whose combined utility experience might be close to a century. Tell them precisely what you can do a cannot do for them. As in other industries, utility people are proud of the number of years they have been in the business. They also respect people with considerable expertise in other areas, but plan to provide them with proof. Have a list of past utility clients ready for review. You might want to request that the utility jost provide you with a brief written description of what the utility is looking for prior to your meeting. This should save everyone some time.

Utility people are like everyone else when it comes to demonstrations. If you have a colorful, well-planned presentation, the people will appreciate it. The technical types will want details, and if you're selling software and services, a demo disk may be requested.

Remember that utilities, like most everyone else, have been "bitten" by consultants that have promised them the world and not delivered. By the same token, utilities have a great deal of respect for consultants who deliver what they promise. As a consultant, make sure you know what the client wants, then deliver whatever is promised.


Samuel Mullen is Restoration Planning Coordinator for Atlantic Electric, an electric utility serving southern New Jersey.

This article adapted from Vol. 3 No. 2, p. 26.

Read 2569 times Last modified on October 11, 2012