North American Transmission Forum uses confidential peer review to improve reliability

In a presentation to inform and educate the industry, the head of a voluntary industry organization dedicated to promoting excellence in the operation of the North American transmission system told the NARUC 2013 Summer Committee Meetings in Denver, Colo., on July 21 about its members, its mission and its value.

The North American Transmission Forum (NATF) is a group of transmission owners and operators that formed after the 2003 Northeast blackout. Officially created under NERC in 2006, it became an independent organization in January 2010 with the purpose of helping system operators identify and correct problems in the areas of human performance, operating experience, physical and cyber security and continuous improvement techniques.

“We do that by providing confidential venues for our members to share important operating information, lessons learned, and so forth to promote an environment for constructive peer challenge to continually improve higher levels of performance,” NATF president Tom Galloway told the Committee on Electricity. “There’s a business benefit to not being at that ragged edge of performance.”

Among the methods NATF uses is a voluntary peer review program, though which the organization sends a team of between 20 and 25 subject matter experts to a host organization to review its operations.

“We’ll provide that organization candid feedback about what they’re doing well – what we call ‘noteworthy positives’ that we’ll bring back to the rest of the membership – and opportunities for improvement,” Galloway said. “We routinely get feedback from our members that the host company and all the team members saw that as a great opportunity.”

NATF’s role is complementary to NERC’s role, he said, noting that neither organization would  compromise its individual approaches.

“While we work to reduce that reliability risk, NERC still has the responsibility of judging whether [the action] was sufficient,” he said.

NATF’s peer reviews have provided early discovery of information that may well have saved members from a formal NERC violation.

“There are certainly a number of instances where we share information about ‘near misses,’ where, if circumstances had been different, there could have been an actual reliability impact,” Galloway told TransmissionHub after the presentation. “We’ll make sure we share that information with our members … and we think that helps promote compliance and adherence with the standards.”

Although the group collaborates closely with the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the Electric Power Research Institute, the North American Generator Forum, NERC and its eight regional organizations and FERC, lessons learned are shared only among the member organizations. Data discovered is kept confidential, even from state regulators.

“We want to make sure we don’t undercut our basic operational premise, which is that confidential venues really help promote very good candor, and a very good drive for peer challenge,” he said.

The group grew from 16 charter members to 70 member companies that cover a large footprint. Group members represent 75% of the high-voltage circuit miles in North America and 75% of the region’s peak load, but Galloway said the organization isn’t content to stay where it is.

Current members range from small companies with a hundred miles of peak load of perhaps 1,000 MW, Galloway said, to large organizations including ISOs and RTOs.

“We see a benefit to having a diverse membership because folks come at it from a lot of different perspectives,” he said. “Sometimes, we’ve found some of the smaller members come up with unique, cost-effective ways to solve things that the larger members hadn’t come up with themselves, but could adopt those better practices.”

Membership is open to transmission operators with a minimum of 50 circuit miles or more of high voltage transmission, 100-kV and above, or that operate a 24/7 control center.

“We are interested in growing the organization,” Galloway said. “We want folks who are actually going to come in and help us move the ball forward and have the same mindset, but we’re very much interested in growing the organization. We think it’s a real plus in terms of reliability.”