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Blog: Grid Infrastructure Maintenance Part 1: How Do You Fix It, If You Don't Know Where It's Broke

The grid needs to be operated, maintained, and repaired reliably to ensure that it always provides Americans with enough electricity to meet their daily needs. But how exactly do you inspect, monitor, and maintain all this infrastructure?

Tim Barat
November 2020

We depend on electricity from the grid for almost everything we do. The grid brings electricity to our entire country, at work, at home and at school. It allows us to use our computers, cook our meals, recharge our phones and get through the day.

To supply more than 400 million people with electricity, the North American power grid extends over an estimated 5.5 million miles of low voltage power lines and is often referred to as the World's Largest Machine.

This immense system needs to be operated, maintained and repaired reliably to ensure that it always provides Americans with enough electricity to meet their daily needs. But how exactly do you inspect, monitor and maintain all this infrastructure?

The Architecture of the World’s Largest Machine

The grid is broken up into three different categories:

  • Electricity generation.
  • Transmission.
  • Distribution.

Power plants are the source of electricity; they generate the electricity that is delivered to customers via transmission and distribution power lines. The high-voltage transmission lines are usually the ones we see suspended between tall metal towers that carry the electricity for miles. It is more efficient and cheaper to transmit high-voltage electricity over long distances. However, low-voltage electricity is safest for use in homes and businesses and is carried along conductors that are supported by wooden poles closer to the ground. 

High-voltage electricity generated in power plants is transmitted via transmission lines to substations where it is converted into low-voltage electricity with transformers. From the substation, the low-voltage electricity is then delivered to households and businesses via distribution lines. Of all three parts, the distribution grid has the greatest reach and is the largest part of the grid.

The Problem With the Grid

Electricity is generated in power plants across the continent and is transmitted through a highly complex network of substations, power lines and transformers before it reaches households and businesses. In the United States, this network consists of:

  • More than 7,000 power plants.
  • Almost 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines.
  • Millions of miles of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers.

Local power grids connect to form larger grids designed for reliability and commercial purposes. All this is divided into three main interconnections that function independently of each other. The Western Interconnection alone supplies the entire area west of the Rocky Mountains and consists of 37 balancing authorities.

These interconnections help to keep the power system running by providing multiple paths for the flow of current. They also give generators the ability to supply power to many load centers. By incorporating these redundancies, failures in transmission lines or power plants are usually mitigated and our grid stays up and running.

The Issues With Manual Inspections, and Finding Faults on the Grid

To keep this elaborate system running, maintenance and inspections are necessary. The problem? With so many millions of miles of equipment to be monitored and maintained, it is almost impossible to find and locate faulty components. In many cases, utilities rely on the public to report faults on the distribution grid— there are no systems comprehensively in place that can remotely and reliably detect these faults.

As an example, utility companies employ a cyclic inspection process for their wooden utility poles. This "sophisticated system?" They hit the poles with a hammer to hear how they sound and detect internal damage.

Industry best practice suggests that the best way to identify poles that are beyond repair is to carry out a comprehensive life extension inspection. During this inspection, poles are sounded with a hammer to search for internal damage and if decay is suspected, the pole is drilled to determine the location and full extent of the damage. Each pole is then fully excavated to a depth of 18 inches to understand the extent of decay that is taking place at ground level. Often decayed wood can be removed and then a preservative paste is applied to temporarily protect the healthy wood.

The problem with this method? It is incredibly time-consuming. This type of inspection is usually only performed on each pole once every eight to twelve years. With millions of miles of utility poles to inspect, there is simply not enough time for more frequent inspections. Most other equipment on the distribution grid is only visually inspected leaving internal damage undetected.

Over the past few decades, utilities have begun to install protection and monitoring devices, but they are entirely dependent on the grid being live. When power outages occur, utilities essentially become blind. During these outages, faults can occur, which means that every de-energized mile must be inspected before re-energizing. This can take days.

A Major Manpower Shortage

Another problem with employing manual inspections to find component failures is that there simply are not enough people to do the job— and that problem will only get worse over time. As an aging population of utility workers retires, utilities are struggling to find people to replace them. Here are the shocking statistics about the impending labor shortage:

  • Forty-eight percent of power and utilities professionals are concerned about the impending problem of finding enough workers.
  • Thirty-two percent of these professionals believe that the recruitment crisis has already occurred.
  • Thirty-eight percent of respondents said that their company is already experiencing a shortage of interested professionals.

The US Department of Energy estimates that 105,000 new workers will be needed by 2030 to maintain the grid, but that only 25,000 existing employees within the industry are interested in filling these positions.

So, How Do You Fix the Grid If You Don’t Know Where It’s Broken?

The challenge with operating this vast network of infrastructure facing a shrinking workforce is that without connected smart devices, grid operators cannot know where equipment overloading or failure has occurred or will occur. With millions of miles of power lines, utilities need to find a way to pinpoint where to send maintenance crews as quickly as possible. As the last few years have shown us, failures can lead to devastating wildfires, medical emergencies and more.

How do you begin to solve the problem?

Gridware has developed a solution that combines remote sensing with data analysis and predictive analytics to accurately detect and locate failures and malfunctions in real time, predict which components require preventive maintenance before failures occur, accelerate outage restorations, and reduce the risk of outages and potential disasters. With smarter solutions like Gridware, utilities can overcome manpower shortages while continuously inspecting their equipment in realtime.

The best part? We are taking on partners for our wildfire prevention beta program. If you are interested in preventing outages before they happen, this pilot program is for you. Join our beta program today!

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