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Blog: Grid Infrastructure Maintenance Part 2: Don't Fix It If It's Not Broke

Timely maintenance of the power grid is a critical component of keeping the United States powered. Maintaining and improving the infrastructure is costly and time-consuming, and while some components require critical repair or replacement, others can be left as they are for the time being. 

Tim Barat
November 2020

There is no doubt that our electricity grid is a major feat of engineering. Despite being an incredibly complex, integrated system of machines, power lines, power plants and components spanning the entire continent, the grid can balance supply and demand in under a second. 

As we patiently wait for energy storage solutions to be deployed across the nation, electricity must be generated on demand. Raw materials and fuels such as coal, natural gas, nuclear products and water behind dams must be converted into electricity as needed in real time.

It's no wonder that the National Academy of Engineering considers the grid to be "part of the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century."

The problem? We are two full decades into the 21st century, and the current grid was designed to last decades, not centuries.

With infrastructure that is in its final stages, timely maintenance of the power grid is a critical component of keeping the United States powered. Maintaining and improving the infrastructure is costly and time-consuming, and while some components require critical repair or replacement, others can be left as they are for the time being. 

The State of the Grid: Ready for an Upgrade

The general public may not think much about the current state of the grid, but in reality we are likely powering our country with infrastructure running on borrowed time. In its Infrastructure Report Card, published in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the national energy infrastructure at a D+—barely a passing grade. Why such a low score?

Most electric transmission and distribution lines were built between the 1950s and 1960s. However, the life expectancy of most of these components is only about 50 years, which means they are already outdated by one or two decades. Additionally, of the more than 640,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines within the lower 48 states, power grids have already reached peak capacity.

As this outdated infrastructure continues to barely function well past its original expiration date, we are seeing an increasing number of outages and destruction caused by failed equipment. To mitigate this situation and prevent these failures, the US Department of Energy has introduced a Grid Modernization Initiative to improve the resiliency, reliability and security of the system that powers our nation, but it will require significant amounts of time and money to enforce.

Updating the Grid: An Expensive But Necessary Endeavor

If our electricity grid is not upgraded, we can expect further outages due to natural disasters. As climate change entices stronger winds and more frequent extreme weather, wildfires are increasingly being caused by sparks from power infrastructure failures.

In fact, more than half of the major power outages across the country between 2000 and 2016 were the direct result of natural hazards such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and wildfires. Unfortunately climate change only exacerbates the problem and both the probability and intensity of extreme weather events has seen increases year by year.

Why is the power grid so vulnerable to failures caused by climate change? It is not built to function well in the midst of these impending climate impacts. As the American Society of Civil Engineers stated in a 2017 report, "Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions."

Some of the transmission lines we use today are over 100 years old. "Think about that," stated Amy Farell of the American Wind Energy Association. "We're charging iPhones and powering smart TVs with infrastructure built when large portions of the country still didn't have access to the electricity needed for a simple light bulb." We need to invest in our grid to reduce downtime and repair costs. 

So what are the costs of modernizing our electrical infrastructure?

Some experts estimate that the cost of replacing our current grid could reach up to $5 trillion, while others go as far as to say that "there isn't enough money in the world" to retrofit our existing grid with equipment that is fire safe and can withstand severe storms. According to Texas A&M University electrical engineer B. Don Russell. “We’re going to have to live with what we’ve got for a long, long time.”

This makes ongoing maintenance a necessity as we work to extend the life of our old, creaking power grid, especially as weather conditions continue to get worse.

Where and How We Should Make Improvements, and How Technology Can Help

Utilities face challenges with the inaccuracies of equipment expiration dates. Some equipment lasts much longer than expected and often pre-dates World War One. At the same time, other equipment can fail much earlier than expected. Without the ability to identify exactly which equipment is most likely to fail, grid operators have been forced to operate on a run-to-failure maintenance model to cope with the enormous costs associated with keeping pace with rated maintenance cycles. 

Fortunately, predictive maintenance can help us solve these problems. If asset managers can know when and where to perform maintenance where it is needed most, failures and outages can be prevented without replacing equipment unnecessarily.

Using remote telemetry, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, Gridware has developed a system that sits atop our existing grid infrastructure to create a more intelligent and reliable grid.

How can this solution help?

  • Detect and locate faults in real time to plan rapid repairs and respond to failures before disaster strikes.
  • Receive fault alerts at any time of day or night, even during outages..
  • Accurately profile the health and condition of assets to identify where infrastructure improvements are most needed to achieve a better return on investment.
  • Reduce operating and maintenance costs, improve threat models, and reduce the frequency and duration of outages.

Gridware is a sustainable solution built to extend the life of the power grid while unlocking cost-effective, intelligent maintenance strategies to keep the lights on. 

We're currently looking for partners to join our pilot program. Schedule a meeting today to learn more about our beta program!

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