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Making a Smart Grid Smarter: New and Upcoming Tech to Protect Our Infrastructure

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Alex Cwalinski's picture
Consultant CWA Utility Consulting

Alex Cwalinski is a consultant for the utility industry. He is currently working to expand the use of power line safety practices and equipment. Through state-of-the-art technologies, Cwalinski...

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  • Dec 8, 2021
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-12 - Data Analytics & Intelligence, click here for more

Utility technology has been making huge advancements in the efficiency of our power grid. Power plants have become far better at adjusting electricity production with usage, greatly reducing waste and costs. With each advancement, we are getting closer to a more perfect system. However, the weather often reminds us that we are far from perfect and that we still have a long way to go.

Drones, power line sensors, and artificial intelligence (AI) are some of the most promising tools needed to become more reactive to the unpredictable forces of nature. 

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Our infrastructure is aging

The elephant in the room is our infrastructure. Transmission and distribution resources need major upgrades, repair, or complete replacement. In fact, it is estimated that 60% of American distribution lines are operating beyond their 50-year life expectancy. This undoubtedly creates problems during extreme or prolonged weather patterns. The Texas Power Crisis of 2021 and the frequent power-equipment-caused fires in California are prime examples.

In California, PG&E currently conducts Public Safety Power Shutoffs that occur during high heat and high wind days to reduce the risk of causing another major fire. These shutoffs cut power to millions of people at once. Frequent and daily blackouts should not be the new normal, especially as our technology continues to improve.

Current and Emerging Technologies

Rapid efforts are being made to update infrastructure and implement new technology. PG&E is currently testing wildfire detection systems on watchtowers that use AI and high-definition cameras to detect smoke. These systems alert officials in real-time when they suspect smoke. However, these systems are not yet capable of detecting the exact location of the smoke.

Drones

The use of drones is quickly becoming standard for utilities. What helicopter pilots once did is now being put into the hands of workers on the ground. Being safer and more cost-effective, drones with high-definition cameras can inspect power line and power pole integrity. They are further inspecting tree and brush coverage near power lines, alerting utilities of potential vegetation hazards.

Drones are also stringing power lines and will soon be able to conduct additional types of power line repair and maintenance. AI will soon emerge enabling drones to survey power lines without human operation. Data generated from these surveys will require analysis, which AI can conduct as well.

Power line sensors

Power line sensors are just beginning to emerge onto the utility scene. Powered by battery or solar, these devices attach directly to a power line and are armed with several sensors. Being wireless via WIFI or cellular connection, they can report data immediately and notify officials of issues based on its exact location. 

These sensors are capable of detecting things like inclination change, which can alert to a power line failure or major power line sag. For example, some power lines can withstand the weight of a large branch, but the weight itself won’t trigger a power shutoff. But an attached sensor is capable of alerting officials if a line is leaning an abnormal amount.

Wind detection and line sway are other detections possible, as well as vibrations and load variation that could point to corrosion along the power pole. Future sensors might come equipped with cameras, temperature gauges, barometers, and more. These devices could also one-day monitor electricity flow along the power lines. 

What’s next?

As data grows, the need for qualified professionals capable of analyzing that data will grow as well. Utilities will have to make adjustments like hiring and training more workers in these fields. Alternatively, partnering with smaller firms with expertise in drones, sensors, and AI will be a wise move.

Creating a more perfect grid will require leaps of faith as these technologies roll out. More testing and fine tuning will certainly take place. Don’t ever hesitate to share ideas for improvement from any of your equipment suppliers. Your idea could be the next big thing in the industry while saving lives and money.

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Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Dec 8, 2021

All these are great, but the most important are the real power system components such as generation facilities, transmission and distribution networks, and the matching equipment with the end users. As a matter of fact, power systems are expanding according to the needs of electricity services. The expansion lasting for a long period and made up of different technologies, may be 50 years old .Therefore, adopting the new techniques and technologies has to go hand -in-hand with the upgrading and modernization of the existing infrastructure. This has to be done wisely and carefully to grant continuous operation and feeding of electricity services to all concened parties.

 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 8, 2021

The use of drones is quickly becoming standard for utilities. What helicopter pilots once did is now being put into the hands of workers on the ground. Being safer and more cost-effective, drones with high-definition cameras can inspect power line and power pole integrity. They are further inspecting tree and brush coverage near power lines, alerting utilities of potential vegetation hazards.

I'm also wondering whether these are already on the way to being replaced with sensors, satellite imagery, etc. Do you think drones will be used for the long haul? 

Henry Craver's picture
Henry Craver on Dec 16, 2021

I was wondering the same thing. How much training is required to convert a utility employee into a capable drone pilot? Beyond just imaging, are drones being used to do any basic repairs etc? 

Andy Skumanich's picture
Andy Skumanich on Dec 23, 2021

As I mention in my article ("To risk or not to risk"), the drone data should be analyzed by AI/ML and a pilot is not even necessary.  The drone can fly an automated route, and the AI can be trained to detect issues.  Also, satellites could in theory be used, but they need to have the right resolution, and to have frequent enough passes.  So for the near- to mid-term, drones w/AI are the way to go.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 23, 2021

Here's Andy's article he mentioned for those who would like to read further:

To risk or not to risk? that is the question - AI is the answer

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Dec 27, 2021

Alex,

Good points. The grid infrastructure is certainly showing its age. The challenge is the amount of money needed to modernize it and the challenge of building a good business case. Trillions are needed to upgrade it so the business case is difficult to make. 

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