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Utility companies can make electricity more reliable and reduce fire risk with this one smart technology

Venkat Bahl's picture
Chief Revenue Officer and SVP of Customer operations, Sentient Energy

Venkat Bahl joined Sentient Energy in 2016 as Vice President of Sales. Prior to joining Sentient, Venkat was the sales leader for wireless technologies at Emerson Process Management, a Fortune...

  • Member since 2021
  • 6 items added with 2,626 views
  • Aug 19, 2021

In recent years, there has been a consistent uptick in extreme weather events - from wildfires to hurricanes to heavy rains and snow. On their own, each of these scenarios places public safety in the spotlight when it comes to reliably delivering electricity. Combine them and you have the perfect public safety storm.


Given today's realities, utility companies are placing more emphasis than ever before on keeping power reliability and public safety at the forefront of distribution grid improvement and management efforts. With every yearly round of budget discussions, choices are made as to which grid resilience and modernization projects should be prioritized.


So, what's the right mix of initiatives and solutions to reduce safety risk and improve power reliability?


Utility companies have traditionally used a mix of grid hardening measures, such as burying lines, using different materials for poles, and trimming vegetation, to protect lines from weather events or other occurrences that could disrupt reliable power delivery. These measures are good, but they’re not enough.


With more than 600,000 miles of transmission lines in the U.S. electric grid, it’s impossible to do enough to protect lines manually. Traditional measures still leave room for risk, take too much time to enact, and can be prohibitively expensive to undertake. Other more extreme preventative measures, like turning off power to large swaths of customers during dry, high-wind conditions, also fall short. Such tactics leave thousands of people without power for extended periods of time. Planned blackouts have impacted more than 2 million people at certain times. It’s a last-ditch effort that frustrates citizens who think there must be a way to keep everyone safe while keeping the power on. There is.


Intelligent sensors have become a crucial addition to grid modernization efforts. The sensors of old have advanced and now provide a range of intelligence, including predictive analytics designed to stop anomalies before they cause problems. They’re quickly becoming the savvy choice in utilities’ efforts to keep power flowing smoothly to customers.


Intelligent sensors can also play a pivotal role in helping electric utilities mitigate fire risk through more extensive monitoring of the distribution grid which enables preemptive maintenance and proactive replacement decisions. Sensors are a cost effective approach to creating real-time visibility at more points in the system helping system operators make more informed decisions during wildfire events with more granular data on load levels, phase balance, interruptions, and disturbances.


If you’re an electric utility looking to modernize and improve operations by adding sensors to your grid management efforts, but you’re not sure where to begin, this article is for you. Below, I explain some of the early steps you can take, and the questions you should ask as you determine how to best leverage intelligent sensors as part of grid hardening, power safety and power reliability efforts.


1. Identify a clear project owner or sponsor


This may seem obvious, but sometimes it’s the most crucial step that can be overlooked when teams jump into the tactical elements of a project. Schedules get busy and before you know it, you’re knee deep into a tangle of projects with no one assigned as the definitive owner. If there is no ownership, there is no accountability – meaning goals and action plans may not be put in place or adhered to. Without a lead, projects can quickly spin out of control, costing power companies millions of dollars before there’s an end in sight.


2. Set multiple goals


You know you need to start with your end goal in mind. But don’t stop with just one. There are different types of sensors and multiple ways to use them across differing scenarios. Thus, you can have specific goals for each implementation. As you start to formulate your goals, think outside of your current use cases. Then develop second, third and even fourth goals, based on each new use case you come up with using the technologies you’re considering


For example, you may want to use your sensors to monitor the health of distribution grid lines. If your lone goal is to communicate faulty circuit indicators, you might just need a simple line monitor, not a smart one. Think bigger to encompass other goals – like how you’ll improve vegetation management practices or reliability, or what you might need to eventually improve your grid and scale for larger projects. Pushing yourself to think on a grander scale and over the long-term will help you determine the types of sensors that will work best for your needs. Point solutions may be sufficient for a shorter-term goal, but if you ultimately want to be aware of more faults, downed wires and vegetation concerns across the entire grid, you may be better off looking into broader platform offerings.


3. Prioritize


Once you have a comprehensive set of objectives in mind, ask questions to determine effective prioritization. Safety and reliability are usually the first mandates utilities prioritize. But within those areas, some will be shaped by the current makeup and health of your network. Is heavy vegetation a concern on any swath of your network? Is a larger portion of your lines in rural areas? Will you require a battery-operated sensor, or are your lines mostly in cities where more load supports power-harvesting sensors?


Talk to other utilities and colleagues in the industry who have deployed sensors at scale, so you can assess what worked well for them. This can also help you with identifying and prioritizing your short and long-term goals. Thinking ahead and looking at your grid operation priorities holistically will better equip you to wisely invest just once in sensor solutions that will grow with you as your grid needs grow and change.


4. Assess your ROI


This step may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Simply ask yourself how much you’re willing to pay for a sensor solution and what you expect to gain as a result. Reverse engineer your ROI measurement based on the agreed-upon project goals. Your team should be able to help by bringing more considerations to the table. For instance, what is the societal cost and the actual cost of a one-minute outage? Consider crew availability, overtime or overnight costs and their implications.


Of course, formulas are always critical to any ROI calculations. The vendors you’re working with should be able to help you with this step in ultimately creating the business case and spend justification.


5. Think about where your data will go


Intelligent sensors provide valuable data – a lot of it – that will need to be effectively integrated into existing data and systems. Too many separate systems can make it hard to turn your data into insights, as it may become compromised. And, you’ll want to have a central repository for storing the data, so it can be analyzed and de-duplicated.


Work with your IT team and vendors to think ahead about how and where you’ll store that data, and what you’ll want to do to analyze or understand that data. Answers to some basic questions will help determine the types of systems and storage you should have in place to make sensors successful: Is it going to be a standalone system? How will your users interact with it? With the proliferation of more screens and systems – will your internal users be overwhelmed and confused? Should you integrate into your distribution management system? Should you integrate into a data lake? Or do you prefer a standalone system because you don’t have existing backend systems in place currently?


6. Embrace change management and equip employees for success


You’ve made the investment, deployed the sensors, begun securing data from the field. Now, it’s time to empower your staff.


Bringing your distribution operations team in early for training and to understand the approach you’re taking and why, will go a long way toward pushing your project forward on budget and on time. These teams – whether public safety incident teams or first responder teams - are the ones who will act first and ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible.


Then as you launch the platform, ensure you are training on how to best use and react to it. How the data will be deciphered and delivered and what each person’s role is throughout the progression. Training shouldn’t take place only once but should be ongoing to ensure the platform is being used to its fullest extent and to continue improvements and usability adjustments along the way.


Lastly, make sure you have a mechanism in place to measure and report back on impact and the “used and useful” nature of your project. Have you been able to reduce safety incidents, or begin to predict where there may be vegetation overgrowth issues? Have you cut back on fault location and restoration time? Excellent! Publish those results. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, and when you share successes early and often, your entire team will be more likely to stay engaged.


Consistently meeting and improving upon critical safety and reliability metrics is a challenge every electric utility, regardless of size or territory, faces. The good news is this — innovative new technologies that help utilities deliver incident-free reliable, safe and clean power are continually making their way onto the scene. No matter where you are in your journey to modernize and improve your utility operations, there is a solution to match your needs.


Dr. Amal Khashab's picture
Dr. Amal Khashab on Aug 19, 2021

-The problem of extreme weather is simple and has been handled before. The electric power system has its own protection procedures and tools which operate as fast as in ten milliseconds.

- Complexity arises with the extended geographical zone of electrified networks. This lowers the level of expert observations that leads to timely action plans for predictive measures such as poles fixing, vegetation trimming, and insulators repairing.

- If the observation zones dimensions have been lessened with increasing the workforce and utilizing the modern GIS facilities and modern sensors as described above, it will be easy for existing protection procedures and tools to work more efficiently. Cost/benefit analysis is straightforward. 


Venkat Bahl's picture
Venkat Bahl on Aug 26, 2021

Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to thoughtfully comment. I agree that the cost/benefit analysis of intelligent sensors and other technology and processes is straightforward.

W. Alan Snook, II's picture
W. Alan Snook, II on Aug 20, 2021

Venkat - I appreciate your post, and the concise steps to success that you have outlined.  As you might know, our company provides intra-grid sensors as well.  Providing reliable, timely, granular data insights from within the grid is clearly a logical step when dealing with Reliability challenges, Unplanned Load impacts, and Fire/Wildfire protections, and/or early detection to limit size/scope of the "unpreventable" events.   Similar to you, I echo the simplicity involved with leveraging today's advanced intra-grid sensor capabilities.  While our companies might address two separate segments of the distribution grid, the value and beneficial outcomes afforded by today's intra-grid sensor data is similar.  Perhaps the industry will soon recognize the unparalleled importance of leveraging intra-grid sensors on both the MV and LV sides to cost-effectively address the ongoing grid-edge Reliability challenges, the need for improved public safety protections, and reducing shareholder/corporation liabilities risk.   I applaud you for sharing this insightful post.

Venkat Bahl's picture
Venkat Bahl on Aug 26, 2021

I appreciate the kind words and am happy the article resonated with you. You're right, there are clearly public safety and grid reliability gains to be made through the strategic use of advanced, complementary technology solutions like intelligent sensors. A problem as vast and complex as wildfire risk requires focused efforts on many fronts. 

Venkat Bahl's picture
Thank Venkat for the Post!
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