LADWP Taking Heat on Power Outages, Embarking on Big IT Upgrades

LADWP power systems manager Andrew Kendall discusses the utility’s response to the recent heat waves

Saturday’s monthly LADWP Neighborhood Council MOU Oversight Committee meeting was scheduled to explain DWP’s upcoming IT system upgrades…but given the ongoing heat wave and City Council Member David Ryu’s recent motion requesting the DWP report on why power went out in our area and how to fix it, the agenda was expanded to cover that topic as well.

Power Outages

The July 6 heat wave and LADWP’s response to it was the topic for Andrew Kendall, a veteran lineman and power systems manager. Kendall is no stranger to fixing broken power systems – he managed DWP’s trouble section for 8 years, and in 2012, led a team of more than 60 employees to help rebuild New York’s power system after Hurricane Sandy.  Kendall happens to lives in SCE territory, however, so he doesn’t get power from DWP.  But he said he put solar on his roof to cut down on A/C power bills, and that he, too, hates it when the power goes out.  (So much so that he even installed a generator at home.)

Image of an LADWP lineman making repairs, shared by Kendall at Saturday’s meeting

Kendall went over the same points as his boss did at last week’s DWP board meeting, but from a viewpoint further down in the trenches (or vaults, in this case). Essentially, he said, the heat wave was unusual in three ways. First, it was so sudden that DWP crews couldn’t stay on top of repairs. Second, the failures were mostly in underground lines, which are much harder to repair. And third, nights stayed hot after the hot days, so the load was unrelentingly high for several days and nights, putting unprecedented stress on the system.  Also, chimed in LADWP Ratepayer Advocate Fred Pickel, homeowners in the Greater Wilshire area have been adding central air conditioning in response to the increasing heat, which further increases the load on local power lines.  (Unmentioned at this meeting, but much in the news lately, is the warning from climate scientists that each year  humans continue putting greenhouse gasses in the air increases the risk of more frequent and intense heat waves.)

According to Kendall, there are 3,700 miles of underground lines in LADWP territory, and the department can replace only 50 miles per year at the moment…which means they’re on a 74-year replacement cycle, and it will be a long time before all the lines are upgraded. Even before the heat wave, Kendall said, DWP linemen were working weekends carrying out planned maintenance for the Power System Reliability Program.  They’re hiring new linemen as fast as they can, he said, but it’s hard – there’s a nationwide shortage of skilled workers, and training new linemen takes four years.

After the presentation, audience members from Windsor Square peppered Kendall with questions. One resident said “Our power was out six times, for 3,000 minutes last year and 2,500 minutes already this year, which is about 16 times worse than the average quoted on the DWP web site. Do you know how bad it is out here?” After a dramatic pause, Kendall replied: “Yes.” He emphasized, however, that DWP is working as hard as it can to improve reliability. One thing the utility is considering, he said, is short pre-scheduled power outages to install neighborhood upgrades, which would double the amount of work it could get done  otherwise. Another possible approach would be easing Villaraigosa-era limits on rush hour construction work, which would allow DWP to get another few hours of work done each day — and which would save DWP something like $20 million per year.

Another resident asked “I have solar on my roof. How come my power still goes out during the day? Shouldn’t I be able to run off my solar panels?” Kendall explained that most solar systems have to shut off if the grid goes down. (Most residential solar systems are only designed to feed power into the grid, not to operate independently; only recently have solar systems that have batteries and can keep the lights on and fridge cold during power outages become widely available.  Big loads like air conditioning are tough on batteries, though.)

This reporter pointed out that smart thermostats like Nest are becoming popular, and asked whether DWP had considered participating in those companies’ demand response programs.   The answer was “We’re open to that, but there are privacy concerns.”

(Some other utilities are currently installing batteries and smart thermostats in homes to cut costs and improve reliability.  The idea is that targeting those measures, as well as solar, to neighborhoods with marginal circuits could help those circuits last longer before needing replacement, which could save DWP money and reduce outages.  The DWP may already be considering some of these ideas.)

Several residents pointed out that the Environmental Impact Reports for new developments always have a section about impact on the power system…but almost always claim “no significant impact.”  (For instance, the 950-unit Crossroads Hollywood project’s draft EIR said just that, and only anticipates a 25% growth in power use in the area.)  With electricity use hitting all-time highs during heat waves, and considering the rise of electric cars, however, it may be time to require developers to plan for higher power usage.

Another resident wondered after the meeting why there isn’t more redundancy (more than one way for power to get where it needs to go) built into the distribution system.   The question wasn’t answered at the meeting, but it’s interesting to look at last week’s power outage at Dodger Stadium (which was caused by a Mylar balloon). The outage lasted only two seconds, because the stadium does have redundant power circuits, but the game was delayed 20 minutes because it takes 20 minutes to bring the stadium’s systems back on line.  (Maybe it’s time to try banning Mylar balloons again.)

IT System Upgrades

Donna Stevener, LADWP CAO, addresses upcoming software upgrades

In other business, the headliners for the meeting, DWP’s Chief Administrative Officer Donna Stevener and Chief Financial Officer Ann Santilli, described DWP’s plans for major upgrades to some of its computer systems.

Some readers may remember DWP’s previous computer upgrade woes. Back in 2010, the DWP had to replace its ancient mainframe-based billing system, as it was simply too old to keep running.  Justifiably leery of custom software, they chose a mostly standard package called Oracle Utilities…but the transition was difficult, expensive, and contentious.  The new system went live three years ago, but had so many problems the Department only just finished cleaning up the mess this year.

It took so long, in fact, that it’s already time to update that software with a new version. The update is currently budgeted at $25 million, and is due for completion by the end of 2019. Future updates should be quicker and cheaper, however, because some of the customizations needed in the 2013 deployment are now part of the base product.

More ambitiously, DWP is also planning to move a number of other business processes into a central Enterprise Resource Planning system. That way, if the one guy who knows how the old software works gets hit by a bus, others can pull up info about any part of DWP’s inner workings without having to know dozens of specialized tools. It would also reduce the time and effort needed to close out financials each month, and add features like a self-service portal for suppliers. The project is due to go live in 2023. It sounds potentially big and disruptive, but they do have the advantage of lessons learned from the 2013 near-fiasco.

Also, Kendall mentioned that DWP is upgrading its Outage Management System to handle complicated jobs better, and said that should be done by April, 2019.

Ann Santilli, DWP’s interim CFO

Postscript

Ironically, when this reporter arrived home after the meeting, power was out on his block…just another reminder that the DWP has a long row to hoe before the outage problem is solved.

LADWP trucks at home on Saturday. A sign from above?
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About Daniel Kegel

Dan Kegel is a software engineer and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council's Sustainability Committee. He also volunteers with Citizens' Climate Lobby Los Angeles and is an occasional contributor to the Buzz.

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