Building a Better System

Posted: April 12, 2019

SVEC Engineers working on power line

SVEC engineers are improving reliability every day

Lots of kids grow up building elaborate structures with Legos, but SVEC Director of Engineering Kurt Miller never quite grew out of it. Instead, he found a job where he could build for a living.

“I’m a grown man still playing with Legos,” he says. “Every day I’m putting things together, rebuilding things, and just modifying and upgrading my Lego set.”

SVEC has made numerous improvements to its system in recent years to help increase reliability for members.

For the last 23 years, his Lego set has been Suwannee Valley Electric’s system, and he has steadily worked to make it stronger and more reliable. Installation of automated restoration equipment is one of the most important building blocks for improving reliability.

New equipment, such as automated switches, can help SVEC isolate outages to specific areas and restore power to some members within minutes. While the cooperative began installing this technology as far back as 2002, the real push to update the system began in 2017.

“We had just started out on our long-range work plan, a 10-year plan that included installing automated restoration equipment throughout the system,” says Miller. “The general manager came into my office and challenged us to get it done in three years.”

SVEC has 55 automated switches on its system. By the end of the year, Miller hopes to have installed 20 more, hitting the goal set for the Engineering Department in 2017.

Clearing the Way

Improving reliability isn’t always about the latest technology. Just as often, it’s a matter of making sure the equipment SVEC already has in place can function uninterrupted. Falling limbs from nearby trees cause most interruptions.

“Tree branches rot but will stay on the tree until they get some weight from rain and motion from wind. Then, we’ve got trouble,” says Miller. “Branches fall on lines and take out ser-vice to our members. The more limbs we can remove above the lines the less trouble we have.”

That’s where the cooperative’s right of way crews come in, trimming back and cutting down branches that could knock out power for members. SVEC usually trims growth around each section of line once every four years. But over the last several years, crews have worked high-trouble areas on a three-year cycle to better clear lines.

In some spots, even right of way clearing isn’t enough to solve the problem. When developing its most recent three-year plan, the Engineering Department identified the 20 worst-per-forming line sections over the previous three years.

“We created that list based on a combination of how many times they were out and how many minutes service was out for members,” Miller says. “Once we had that, we took our team out and inspected those lines and determined all but one were candidates for relocation.”

Miller and his team are working to have five of those problematic lines moved from heavily forested areas to road sides by the end of the year. Once completed, the relocations will mean members face less time without power each year.

“We’re not unlike a lot of rural co-ops that have been around for 80 years or more,” Miller says. “We have so many lines that were put in before there were roads and haven’t been relocated. It’s a long process, but we’re trying to spend our limited resources on the ones that will have the biggest impact for our members.”

Eye in the Sky

SVEC is even exploring new ways to inspect its electric system and find potential weaknesses before they cause an outage. While inspecting the top of an electric pole used to require sending out a crew with a bucket truck, today one employee can snap a picture of the pole using a drone.

The cooperative has two drone operators, both in the Engineering Department, certified by the FAA. SVEC recently put them to work confirming a contractor’s recommendation to replace some aging poles. The drone, dubbed SVEC One, was able to get high-resolution photos of poles in need of examination by SVEC’s operations and engineering professionals.

All that work to make sure SVEC’s system can withstand out-ages has shown positive results over the last few years. Each year, the cooperative tracks the amount of time the average member has been without power. Excluding major storms, during which some outages can’t be helped, outage time has steadily decreased each year since 2014.

For Miller, that means his Lego set is better than ever, and he has a great group of people with whom he can continue building.

SVEC has begun using new technology such as drones to help inspect and find rotting poles on the system.

“We need our operations folks, and they need engineering. We’re equal partners in it, and we’ve got a good leader,” he says. “We’re just glad to be a part of the team that’s making reliability better here at SVEC.”