Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
August 2018

Vol. 23, No.31 Week of August 05, 2018

RCA staff reviews standards as Railbelt moves to unified system

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

In conjunction with moves towards a more unified approach to the management and operation of the Alaska Railbelt electrical system, during a July 11 Regulatory Commission of Alaska public meeting commission staff reviewed a new set of Railbelt reliability standards that the utilities are in the process of implementing. The objective of the standards is to specify a set of technical criteria and procedures that minimizes the likelihood of a failure in the electrical system.

Critically important

A reliable electricity supply is critically important in Alaska, especially in the winter when people depend on electricity for lighting and for powering the heating systems in buildings.

Until recently the Railbelt electricity grid has operated under two similar but different reliability standards. The commission is concerned that there needs to be a single, consistent set of standards that is enforced for all six of the utilities that operate the Railbelt electrical system. The utilities have worked together to merge the two existing sets of standards and they filed a unified set of standards in April. The utilities are also looking to implement an organization called the Railbelt Reliability Council, which, among other things, would enforce the use of the standards.

Perform to specification

Jay Layne, an RCA staff engineer, characterized electrical reliability as the ability of the system to perform close to its specifications, including, for example, the maintenance of an alternating current frequency near 60 hertz. The electricity also needs to be delivered within required voltage specifications. In addition to ensuring the continuity of the electrical supply itself, a key challenge is to meet those frequency and voltage parameters in a situation where the electrical load is continuously varying, and where an electricity generator may break down or go offline. A particular nightmare is the type of cascading blackout that could occur if there is a loss of generation capacity without an adequate, compensating shedding of electrical load.

Another reliability issue that has been emerging in recent years is the possibility of a physical or cyber attack on the electrical system.

The reliability standards need to address the means of ensuring that the electricity meets the required technical standards, while also ensuring that there are appropriate procedures for handling supply emergencies. Personnel need to be appropriately trained and qualified, and facilities appropriately maintained.

NERC standards

The huge interconnected electricity grid in the Lower 48 has federally mandated standards overseen by the North American Electric Reliability Corp., or NERC. The isolated Alaska Railbelt does not have to conform to the NERC standards but has standards, many of which are modeled on those of NERC. Each utility in the Railbelt has its own electricity load balancing area but also interchanges power with other utilities within what is a single system, interconnected through the Railbelt transmission grid. The interconnected nature of the system means that a problem encountered by one utility can impact other utilities on the grid, Layne commented.

Eight categories

The Railbelt standards are grouped into eight categories, including the balancing of power generation and electrical load; the design of facilities; facility connection standards; the interchange of power between different load balancing areas; protection against load shedding; the maintenance of reserve power; and transmission planning.

The Railbelt standards do not currently encompass physical and cybersecurity - as previously reported in Petroleum News, the utilities have established a working group to address this issue and anticipate filing a draft set of cybersecurity standards by the end of this year.

As part of his response to the July 11 presentation, Commissioner Robert Pickett commented that another issue that needs to be addressed is the question of how the standards will be maintained. What entity will conduct ongoing oversight of the standards, and what would be the RCA’s role in the regulatory enforcement of the standards and changes to the standards?


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