Why Redundant Systems are Out-of-the-Question Necessary

I live in Mandaluyong City, Manila, Philippines and on June 2, 2021, there were three (3) announcements:

  1. The Luzon electrical grid was on “red alert,” meaning power failures of up to two (2) hours were imminent due to shortfalls in supply from power plants;
  2. The water utility company, Manila Water, warned that there would be no water supply later in the evening, as the company was planning to fix a water main which could take up to ten (10) hours;
  3. The government’s weather bureau forecasted that a tropical storm was bearing down on Manila, which could bring heavy rains and strong winds.

None of the above happened. 

There was no power interruption.  Water slowed to only a trickle for up to at most a half hour in the middle of the night.  And the storm brought light rain but no strong winds. 

Though it was good news that none of the above happened, the three (3) announcements were disturbing for the following reasons:

  1. They all came as surprises.  The government was assuring ample electrical supply from April to June 2021.  Manila Water had just fixed the water main a few weeks before so we residents didn’t expect there’d be another job that would entail one more whole night of no water.  The weather bureau was predicting the tropical storm wouldn’t reach Luzon but we suddenly saw the new forecast on social media before the storm would hit;
  2. There was no sense of urgencyPoliticians bickered about the power shortages.  Agencies weren’t advising people about the risks in regard to the storm.  And no one was asking communities to prepare for the scheduled water interruption.
  3. These announcements wouldn’t have been necessary if the systems behind each of them were reliable in the first place

All of us rely on electricity and water for our basic needs.  It’s therefore a given that supply should be reliable, as in 100% reliable.  We don’t and shouldn’t accept anything marginally lower. 

If someone tells us we should be happy with 99% reliability in electricity and water, we would ask that person if he’d be happy having no water or power one day out of every 100 days.  We wouldn’t and no one else would. 

Hence, we expect the people who supply us the power and water to be utterly and perfectly dependable.  It’s what we pay for via the bills the utility companies send us and expect us to pay by deadlines with the threat of disconnection if we don’t. 

Electricity and water, like products, easily follow the supply chain model.  Power plants procure raw materials (e.g., coal, oil, gas, wind, solar, geothermal steam) and convert them to electricity which they deliver via transmission lines and distribution grids.  Water companies likewise procure raw water from reservoirs, treat it, and distribute it via their plumbing networks to household and commercial consumers. 

The procurement, transformation, and logistics that comprise every supply chain are present as well in electricity and water utilities.

What makes the power and water supply chains unique is that the products of both are instantly available.  We get power at the flick of a switch and water at the turn of a valve. 

We consumers expect three (3) things from utility companies that supply electricity and water: 

  1. Reliability all the time.  When we consumers need it, the supply should be there. 
  2. Reliability to all.  Supply should be available all the time to all in a utility company’s coverage area.  It is not acceptable if one community has water and power while another has none. 
  3. Reliability in quality.  Utility companies must supply electricity and water at the quality needed.  If our appliances need 220 Volts, it should be 220 Volts, not 250 or 190.  Water should be clean, not dirty. 

Some executives and politicians mistake capacity for reliability.  Some believe if there are more power plants, the more reliable power supply will be.  Likewise, for water, some believe the greater the reservoir capacities, the more reliable water supply would be. 

Capacity is about the capability of assets, such as machines that can produce more and such as storage facilities that can keep more.  But having the ability to make or store more doesn’t make a system more reliable. 

Manila relies on one large reservoir to supply the bulk of its water.  Some people urge that another should be built so that there would be more water available for a growing population.  It’s an issue of capacity, these people say. 

Manila, however, relies on treatment plants to clean and filter the water.  It also relies on a network of pipes to bring the water to consumers. 

What would happen if Manila had lots more water than needed via two (2) reservoirs but had only one treatment plant and one main pipe supplying several of its cities?  The system may have more than enough capacity but wouldn’t exactly be reliable especially if the treatment plant shuts down or a pipe springs a leak.

This is what exactly was the issue for that announcement of no water on June 2, 2021.  A main water pipe needed repair and it was the only one that supplied to a large swath of the city.  One pipe determined the reliable supply of water to hundreds of thousands of people. 

Similarly, it would be nice to have more power plants to have more generating capacity. But if there’s only a single transmission line from each power plant and single substations to process that power before reaching respective consumers, then the power supply may not be as reliable.

Luzon had a shortfall of power supply on June 2, 2021 not because there weren’t enough power plants.  It was because Luzon’s power plants weren’t being managed reliably.  A power plant for instance didn’t have a backup for its boiler facilities that ran its turbine.  Other power plants were down simultaneously for preventive maintenance, which reflected poor scheduling. 

Redundancy is key to dependable reliability in utility companies.  Redundancy is the operation of multiple identical assets for the same process.  Instead of one asset, there’d be two or more even if just one is enough to do on its own.  That means either there’d be at least one idle asset backing up other assets in an operation or several assets running at the same time but at lower capacities as they share serving the total demand. 

For electricity supply, that would mean multiple facilities, not only in the form of multiple power plants but also in multiple transmission grids and substations running parallel to each other. 

For water, that would mean not only multiple reservoirs but also multiple treatment plants and plumbing networks either running parallel or taking turns to be on standby. 

If a transmission line has a fault, the power company can switch to another grid to deliver the electricity.  If a pipe bursts, the water company can switch to an alternate pipeline. 

Some executives, however, see redundancy as a bad thing.  Since it requires extra investment and added operating costs, they would rather not have redundant systems and instead insist that their management teams simply make sure that the systems are always running all the time and perfectly.

Unfortunately, no system is perfect.  Eventually, there will be failure.  It is just not humanly possible to prevent a power line from snapping due to wear and tear or a water treatment plant from shutting down due to an unexpected clog in its filter systems.                                                                                  

Redundancy therefore not only becomes justifiable but also necessary especially when the consumers the utility companies serve, which is practically everyone, demand 100% reliable electricity and water.

Redundancy applies to other supply chains in other industries as well where customers are very sensitive to failure in the delivery of goods and services. 

Enterprises that sell finished products rely on multiple vendors for the same raw materials to avoid run-outs.  They also set contracts with multiple transport providers to ensure there’d be available trucks to deliver the goods. 

Again, some executives mistake capacity for reliability.  They ration procurements from vendors based on percentage of their manufacturing capacities and they ask only so much trucks per transport provider to total only what’s needed to ship in a day.  When a vendor fails to deliver or a trucker doesn’t show up, the enterprise ends up not making what’s needed or delivering to schedule. 

Redundancy means having assets that provide multiples of needed capacity, not just the capacity itself.  It means having multiple sources, multiple facilities, and multiple systems such that when one fails, another picks up the slack. 

And as much as it applies to electricity and water, it is very much applicable to other industries that have very demanding customers.

And it also applies to weather forecasting too.  Weather forecasters rely on multiple monitoring stations and multiple providers for satellite and analytical data.  The data and analyses are redundant but it allows weather forecasters to compare information and come up with more accurate and reliable forecasts.  Which makes it puzzling as to why the forecast was so much wrong before June 2, 2021. 

For critical services like electricity and water, we demand perfect reliability.  Redundancy in systems help assure that reliability.  We expect nothing less from those who provide what we feel we deserve. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

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