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IN THE HOT SEAT: scheduling department is always on duty

Tuesday, July 18, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Kerry Cordray
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To many, the flow of electrons, zooming from generator to user at almost-the-speed-of-light seems like a simple story. Flip on the TV, stuff a charger plug into the hole on your cellphone, slide a dish of leftovers into the microwave and push the button. You can sort of imagine the flow, like a fuel source running through a series of ever-tinier pipelines. But no, it’s more complicated. At every fast lane, intersection and waystation on the ‘electron highway’, fascinating and amazingly technical things happen that would take volumes to accurately describe.


Unknown to many, from spots electronically overlooking portions of ‘the highway’, highly-skilled workers keep watch on how it all goes. The workers continually monitor changing situations, and they have to be ready when called upon to control, adjust and respond to the shifting ‘road conditions’. Their mission: keeping power supply running smoothly, safely, and adequately to meet the demand of homes, businesses and industries. It must all be done subject to the constant goal of getting the best possible value for every watt, for every member, every hour and every day. And a plan must be made for how it all will go tomorrow.  


It Starts with A Schedule 

Brightly lit by more than a dozen colorful computer and video screens, a spacious control room in Columbia houses MPUA’s scheduling department. This is the place where a roster of seven staff members perform much of that daily money-saving control and planning for 47 cities in Missouri, all members of the Missouri Public Energy Pool (MoPEP) and the Mid-Missouri Municipal Power Energy Pool (MMMPEP). Their scheduling work also serves cities outside the pools that receive power management services from the Missouri Joint Municipal Electric Utility Commission (MJMEUC), for power plants like Plum Point, Prairie State and Iatan 2.


For MPUA’s Manager of Energy Scheduling Darren Dunlap, the workday usually starts at 5:00 a.m. An early-morning scheduling staff member is already there, performing a long checklist of shift duties that started as the overnight scheduler left duty at 4:30 a.m. Another scheduler will arrive later for evening operations. A schedule for the day is prepped, readying the day’s plan. “At its most bare-bones description,” said Dunlap,” a schedule is a plan, to move wholesale quantities of energy from one place to another, across transmission lines.”


These round-the-clock operations have been going on ‘24-7’ since January 1, 2015. For each day, the department will execute and adjust a previously planned “schedule” for economically powering every one of the customer cities for the day. They are also working out a final plan for tomorrow’s schedule, and developing longer term forecasts that will lay the foundation of schedules for future days ahead.

The schedule takes a wide number of factors into account for all the cities served, including: 

  • Weather – temperatures, winds, forecasts, and changing conditions.  
  • Power plant outputs, from all sources in the generation portfolio (current output, and an hourly schedule planned for the day from each source.
  • Current power consumption (monitored at each city, updated every two seconds in the computer system).
  • Predicted consumption, based on historic use of the city for dates with similar conditions.
  • Outages - both by the city/user and at the power plants including their maintenance schedules.
  • Transmission line routing and costs, worked out with regional transmission organizations (RTOs) like the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) and Midcontinent Independent System Operator, Inc. (MISO), or through agreements with rural cooperatives.
  • Accounting and costs.

All this, PLUS – the biggie – anticipating fluctuation and change in all-the-above.


Tag – it isn’t child’s play

A large part of the execution of a schedule is identifying and accounting for transactions of specific amounts of power to be generated, bought, sold, and routed from each generator to the pools and cities. These arrangements must be set-up and recorded, with specific dates and times, legal permission and documentations for transmission routes they will follow, and a corresponding ‘financial path’ that shows the chain of buying and selling. For this to happen, large amounts of wholesale power are identified by “E-tags” (also NERC Tags, or simply ‘tags’). Schedulers stay busy every day developing, creating and monitoring the tags – whole screens full of information that electronically identify each one of these wholesale power transactions – to satisfy both long-term power contracts and short term supply needs “from the source to the sink” (generator to user).


During the course of a day’s work in the department, there are regular interactions between the department staff and power generators, the customers (member cities), and the RTOs. These communications include conference calls, individual check-ins with cities, e-mails and exchanges of data.  A ‘crunch time’ in the department when things are often busiest usually runs through the first few hours of the business day, as daily morning conference calls are conducted with power generators to go over production schedules and expectations for the day.


Internally, staff in the department must be in regular communication with analysts, managers and other staff. Things usually run close to how they were planned, but through it all, quick responses must be made to any number of things that can alter that picture in a few minutes. A power plant may “trip” for a mechanical issue and halt production, requiring immediate transactions to order power in from elsewhere in the market. A line of severe storms may roll through and cause damage through several cities, quickly dropping demand.  


History, development and maximized value

In its first eight years of MoPEP service, most of MPUA’s marketing, scheduling and tagging was fully contracted to the investor-owned utility Westar, based in Topeka Kansas. In 2007, MPUA commissioned   engineering studies for the startup of its own scheduling operation, and in 2008 it launched daily scheduling services on a daytime basis, an operation that created schedules and executed their operation during business hours, but continuing to contract nightly operations to Westar. Finally in 2015, the operation became a fully-staffed 24-hour service.


The bottom line

Why does such a technical operation exist, there in a big basement room in northern Columbia? That story could be told at some greater length, but in the end the answer is actually pretty simple.


It saves money.


“Since our implementation of 24/7 scheduling operations, we estimate that the savings to MJMEUC are roughly $2 million a year,” said John Grotzinger, Chief Operating Officer of MJMEUC. “This includes savings over what we would now have to spend if we were to go back and outsource things fully ‘out of house’, plus market savings for capacity and energy that we maximize through our careful operations.”


Even now as you’re reading these words, an MPUA scheduler is executing the plan, reacting to changes, and optimizing every transaction down to the Kilowatt to save money. That saved money benefits each city, and ultimately every retail customer served by MPUA. 


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