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As the county’s aging infrastructure reaches or exceeds its “useful life,” the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities walks a fine line between extending its lifespan and replacing it completely.
“Our objective is to get as much life out of the assets as we reasonably can. We’re not simply going in and replacing infrastructure because it’s 40 years old, if it could potentially be useable for 100 years,” DPU Manager John Arrowsmith said.
DPU has developed a systematic and unusual approach for dealing with a dilemma many communities are facing.
The solution centers around seven asset management teams, each comprised of engineers, operations people and financial staff. The teams were created several years ago to continually assess the state of the infrastructure and prioritize capital projects for replacement.
“I’ve been involved with the capital planning for 10 years now, and I think it’s a pretty thorough job,” Deputy Utilities Manager of Engineering James Alarid said. “We’ve spent a lot of effort on condition assessments of our infrastructure. We look at the risk of certain things and then prioritize based on that.”
“I think we’re unique in a couple of ways,” Alarid continued. “We’ve got four utilities, so there’s a broad degree of knowledge and specialty that we have to maintain. And the communication between the administrative staff and the operations staff exists in a better way here. There’s a lot more open communication.
“You bring all perspectives in, and that’s good. Everybody in their job is aware of a different component or a different perspective of that system and sharing that knowledge really helps develop where the needs are.”
Deputy Utility Manager for Electric Distribution Rafael De La Torre explained the process. “We do monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual inspections of our system and based on the maintenance results, we develop projects we have to take care of right away and also develop the basis for the long-term capital projects,” he said.
The asset management teams prioritize the needs based on the risk of failure, the service life of the materials and the history of failure.
Those priorities are not only reflected in budgets for each fiscal year. Every team submits a 10-year capital improvement plan with their yearly budget request.
“We’re not only looking at our immediate needs, but we’re planning and coordinating for a 10-year horizon,” Alarid said. “As part of that our finance folks run the economics on what that assessment will be, to monitor if we need to borrow money or increase rates, and we balance things a lot of times based on available funding. We always try to look a few years ahead at where we need to be and do the correct financial planning as well.”
That degree of planning is atypical. Most utilities look at a five-year horizon, some evaluate long-term need with even less frequency.
“We do put a lot of effort into this, so there’s been a lot of planning over the years and the rates are established to have that reserve to reinvest in our systems, so we’re not in a crisis mode. We’re planning ahead,” Alarid said.
The asset management program appears to be producing the desired effect.
One sign of that is the reduction in power outages, which are tracked using the System Average Interruption Duration Index. A few years ago, customers experienced approximately four or five hours a year without electricity. For the last six months of 2011, DPU reached its target by averaging less than 60 minutes. This year the average is approximately two hours.
“We know what our challenges are, we’ve done a heck of a lot of system improvement, we have short-term and long-term goals, and so we’re proceeding toward improving the reliability in our grid, knowing that there are challenges,” De La Torre said.
“We have a good group of operations folks and engineers that are doing a pretty good assessment of the system, so I think every year we’re collecting more data, doing better at that, so our estimates of our capital requirements continue to improve,” Arrowsmith said.
For more on the county’s infrastructure needs, read Tuesday’s Los Alamos Monitor.