ELECTRIFYING THE NORTHLAND
Alaska’s largest power provider searches for ways to upgrade its radio communications to keep up with the many challenges of a harsh environment.
Chugach Electric Association is the largest power supplier in Alaska. CEA’s headquarters is located in Anchorage, AK, and its service area covers the majority of the state’s population. The association operates power plants, distribution lines and substations, providing retail and wholesale electric and energy services.
Providing these services requires radio equipment that can deal with some of the toughest conditions found anywhere on the planet. In addition to the high voltage, snow and ice you might expect, throw in hurricane-force winds on a regular basis, earthquakes, volcanic ashfall and flesh-freezing cold. Then add in occasional encounters with brown bears, and you will begin to see why operations, dispatch and maintenance crews place a premium on solid, reliable communications.
In May I interviewed CEA Communications Manager Vance Cordell and CEA RF and Wideband Engineer Russell Thornton, P.E. The discussion revealed some insights that may interest operators of other utility radio systems.
First, the system supporting CEA’s operations is a conventional LMR repeater system with 15 repeater/remote base stations, 142 mobiles and 114 hand-held units. The system is tied together by a combination of private microwave, radio links and leased wireline communications.
When I asked if cellular telephones were a part of CEA’s regular communications, Cordell and Thornton were quick to point out some important operational obstacles. CEA does use a limited number of cellphones for administrative traffic, but for safety reasons it does not permit cellphone use for operations.
When crews are maintaining the energy distribution infrastructure or performing response, recovery or restoration activities, their safety has to be “Job Number One.” The use of the LMR system permits multiple crews to monitor, to communicate, to direct and to respond across a single channel. While this is possible with cellphones, it is certainly not as simple as a direct communications system.
Another factor that may be overlooked is durability. The Motorola MX-series hand-helds that CEA uses in the field are mounted in fleet vehicles. Because of the nature of utility work, there is scarcely any cab location not subject to a lot of abuse.
Common cellular equipment would be hard-pressed to take the kind of knocks dished out by a hard-working line crew — and survive. These radios, which can be removed from the vehicle, strapped to a belt and used with a hand mic, represent a solid, all-weather communications system. The radio is critical for protecting the lives of line crews as they work in remote or isolated areas.
Some utilities eschew operating a private radio in favor of leasing or purchasing time on an SMR system. Both Cordell and Thornton agreed that leasing equipment and airtime from an SMR operator represents a value that should be reviewed — if the system meets the service coverage requirement. When asked why they rejected the idea for CEA use, their answer was no surprise: control and reliability. These radio managers hold a conviction that a cellular-architecture system would overload in a crisis situation, such as a power outage. Systems can rapidly jam up as users call to check on the condition of friends and family. An SMR might suffer the same fate, even if priority service levels had been established. CEA’s public responsibility simply outweighed any potential cost savings, Cordell and Thornton said.
CEA’s microwave backbone system is used for SCADA links, as you might expect, and it is used to tie together the extensive LMR network. The association is looking at the potential for creating supplemental revenue by leasing surplus bandwidth. (A sharp paging or SMR system owner would quickly see the value of site hosting by an electric utility.)
Collocation, site hosting and sale of excess control bandwidth by a utility can be viewed as either a threat or a boon, depending on the type of system you operate.
CEA operates an almost all-Motorola UHF network, with a few Kenwood hand-helds of recent vintage rounding out the inventory. I asked the obvious question about a trunking upgrade and was informed that a request for proposal had just been released.
How the RFP is worded may be of interest to system operators. Because CEA does not want to replace a well-working system, the RFP was written with open specifications as to trunking type. The goal is for the proposed solution to maximize existing repeater systems.
The RFP also focuses on a phased conversion to a 450MHz trunked system, extending the service life of existing equipment. Licensing issues have been sorted out with the FCC in advance, allowing vendors to concentrate on system components and installation timelines without sweating license issues. Another consideration for the trunking system was the potential for selling and leasing excess capacity to electrical contractors who deal with CEA on a regular basis.
When I asked about disaster preparations, CEA’s answer was a bit of a surprise. When bad weather or any anticipated problem is on the horizon, boxes of extra, charged batteries are delivered to operations from the maintenance department. It seems that extended operations chew up portable batteries at an almost unbelievable rate.
CEA uses OEM batteries, and it has a limited rotation/rehabilitation program for its current inventory. All radios are programmed for talk-around, and all system components have regular maintenance for maximum availability. You might say emergencies are pretty routine for the CEA network.
System operators should note the emphasis on reliability and durability these managers place on their system and components. The requirements to phase-in any new system and to maximize existing system elements are key factors in the recently released RFP. The advance work by CEA management on licenses and leaving the trunking architecture choice open to vendors struck me as a bit out of the ordinary in a utility system bid process. These factors point to careful planning and a sharp eye on the bottom line.
CEA has an excellent record for electrifying the Northland. These folks are proud of their system and it shows.
Contributing Editor Koehler is a network operations manager at a major Alaskan communications corporation. His email address is AFDEK1@uaa.alaska.edu. The author would like to thank CEA’s Vance Cordell and Russell Thornton for the time spent answering questions on a busy day.