• Kaitlyn Albertoli

Repair, Replace, and Reform: A Gateway into Grid Reliance and Sustainability

Background on our Grid

Electricity is one of the fundamental cornerstones of our modern world. Virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives involves the use of electricity in one way or another. Yet, so often, we take for granted the ease of access we have to electricity…that is, until it no longer works as expected. What we consider to be as simple as flipping on a light switch to fill a room with light, is a culmination of energy generation, transmission, and distribution through the grid on its way to flood our homes with power.

The backbone of our power grid is supported by major physical infrastructure. This infrastructure includes towers, poles, generation stations, and wires spanning millions of miles, sending electricity at incredibly high speeds from place to place. Much of this transmission and distribution infrastructure was constructed over half a century ago, with much of the grid construction dating back to the 1950s and some components even dating back to the 1920s. Since that time, little has changed with our grid and its structure. And while little has changed with our infrastructure itself, nearly every aspect of our world has transformed and our reliance on electricity has surged. This creates immense pressure on the grid and as it continues to age, the need to evolve our grid has never been more important.

The Current Health of our Grid

It is widely understood that our grid is in dire need of upgrades, but maintaining the grid is a daunting task. The pressures that modern society places on the grid is immense and the need for investment in grid modernization and grid resilience is apparent. Despite the efforts introduced by the Department of Energy (DOE)’s Grid Modernization Initiative to help improve reliance and resilience, utilities continue to fall behind in repairing and replacing grid infrastructure. In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US grid a D+ on its annual Infrastructure Report Card and in 2021, its grade was not much better as a C-. Understanding how to optimize budgets, resources, and timelines to maximize maintenance efforts has never been more important.

When it comes to upgrading grid components, utilities have a few options: repair, replace, or reform. As referenced in several sources, replacing the entirety of the US grid could cost up to $5 trillion dollars, not to mention years of tremendous effort and resources – far from a practical solution. According to a DOE report in 2015, 70% of power transformers in the U.S. are more than 25 years old or older, over 60% of circuit breakers are 30 years old, and 70% of transmission lines are at least 25 years old. In fact, the average age of many grid components in the U.S. is over 45 years old. This is where asset tracking is valuable to help understand where these assets are deployed and the current age of each component.

A broken C-hook that supports the insulators and other electrical components

Of course, age is not the only factor driving component failure. Component location also plays a large role. For example, areas where salt is used on the roads to reduce road freezing in snowy winter conditions has been associated with higher component corrosion. Similarly, locations with high winds and heats in blistering summers have also seen higher rates of asset failure. Areas identified as high-risk locations are known as “hot spots”. Utilities have come under heavy scrutiny in recent years for massive outages as a result of forced shutdowns, massive wildfires, and storm-related outages. with weather-related causes, many of which occur in these hot spot regions. These areas require particularly special attention.

Natural disasters have contributed to nearly 50% of the power outage occurrences between 2000 and 2016, with even more weather-related power outages happening in recent years. The past few years have brought utilities into the spotlight for their involvement in the California wildfires, with the major utilities admitting fault for their failed grid infrastructure. Increasingly high heat and winds, encroaching dry vegetation on power lines, and faulting components on the line have all contributed to the catastrophic wildfires which are destroying homes and lives the western US. This is another reason why it is critical to maintain the health of our grid as it continues to experience higher rates of failure, particularly in these hot spot areas.

Ultimately, there are three steps to derive the best course of maintenance:

1. Identify faults early through inspections and in-line monitoring.

2. Manage data and track asset health over time.

3. Assess severity of the fault to derive the best course of maintenance.

Early hot spot identification and asset tracking are crucial in understanding the best course of maintenance. Asset tracking and monitoring is conducted in two ways: in-line monitoring or out-of-the-line visual inspections. In-line monitoring is highly important, but roughly 80% of in-line failures are a direct result some type of physical damage to the component, which is where visual inspections are vital. Given the exorbitant cost of replacing grid equipment, it is the final resort once an asset has reached the point of no repair, also known as the end of life. The ability to understand when a component nears or reaches the end-of-life stage is a critical aspect to maintaining, optimizing, and lengthening the life span of each component.

Step One: Identify Early through Inspections

Major power utilities are mandated to visually inspect all of their lines. Typically, inspections are required once every three to eight years, with most utilities falling somewhere in the middle range. A given utility owns and manages anywhere from hundreds to millions of miles of line, so they often choose to inspect some fraction of their lines on an annual basis, rotating through the total mileage each year. These inspections utilize drones, helicopters, ground crews, and fixed wing aircrafts, where many utilities are capturing thousands, if not millions of images and videos of both their Transmission and Distribution (T&D) infrastructure.

The process, however, does not end here. Making sense of all this information is a challenge itself. For years, the process of analyzing imagery and drafting inspection reports has been a manual process, with teams of linemen, field technicians, and engineers, manually tagging and annotating each image where each fault may occur. It is a critical and time sensitive task, yet to say this process is highly time intensive and tedious would be an understatement. It is estimated that a utility, such as Southern California Edison, spent an average of 3,542 hours analyzing data captured for their 125,000 towers/poles inspected in 2020. If undertaken by one person, this process would take months and, in that time, inspection data becomes outdated and much less valuable, as the asset may have further degraded or failed completely. This data must be processed as quickly as possible to gain insight into the most current health of each component. This is where utilities must employ dozens or hundreds of linemen to analyze the data.

Step Two: Manage Data and Track Assets

Today, utilities are capturing 5-10x the data annually than in previous years. With the large spike in data captured, manual processing is becoming a less viable solution. As such, many utilities have begun exploring the ways that automation can serve as an added tool to help linemen and field technicians optimize the analytics process. This is where the value of Artificial Intelligence comes into focus. AI can be used in a variety of ways, but one of the purposes of AI in inspections is to serve as a tool to streamline data management, processing, and generation of actionable insights. These insights aim to help linemen, field technicians, and engineers as a tool to optimize maintenance routes based on areas with highest fault density and most severe failures. AI-powered solutions, such as Buzz Solutions plug in to manage, analyze, and identify both healthy and faulty failures more quickly, thus helping in the asset tracking and fault identification.

Step Three: Decide to Repair, Replace, or Reform

Given finite budgets, resources, and time, utilities must prioritize which components to repair first. Particularly in wildfire season, repairing damaged infrastructure is highly time sensitive and often, only the most severe faults can be repaired. Further, budgetary constraints limit the ability to fully replace many grid components. Some utilities have taken it upon themselves to be more innovative and preventative in improving infrastructure before disaster strikes.

The decision to repair versus replace is not quite as simple, when evaluating how time, money, and longevity of resilience are in play. For example, Southern California Edison (SCE)’s 2018 cost analysis for grid safety and resilience considers a few different options for conductor maintenance. The analysis explores three options:

1. Reconductor – Bare: $300,000

2. Reconductor – Covered: $430,000

3. Underground Conversion: $3,000,000

Each of the three options has advantages and disadvantages. The bare conductor poses as the most cost effective but least resistant to contact, while the underground conversion poses as the most intrusive and expensive option at 8-10x more than the bare conductor. After a great deal of evaluation and testing, SCE has opted for installation of the three-layered covered conductor in 60% of their high-risk fire areas (HFRA) with installation over a 5-year period.

Ultimately, this serves as a key example of risk mitigation and upgrading of grid infrastructure in high-risk areas, while also optimizing for budget, time, and resiliency. As we explore the daunting task The decision to repair or replace grid infrastructure is not as straightforward

The Importance of Streamlining Data

Informed decisions for repairing, replacing, or reforming grid infrastructure are derived from data and analysis of that data. The faster a utility can derive actionable insights or a course of action from this data, the more time savings, and cost savings a utility can generate. With a streamlined inspection process and analysis of this data through an AI-based inspection process, a utility can combine multiple forms of data to understand the true health of a line and overall infrastructure. The combination of asset tracking, identification of failures through inspections, and identification of risky hot spot areas can help a utility decide its best course of maintenance. The decision to repair, replace, or upgrade, is therefore a much faster and more informed decision.

The Informed Decision

Through more informed decisions, a utility can improve its understanding of current line health and potential risks associated with its infrastructure. This opens the door for a utility to repair or replace infrastructure more quickly and seamlessly, but the process does not stop there. By tracking assets and analyzing trends in component degradation, maintenance teams can begin to flag assets which may soon fail. Utilities may be able to then plan maintenance preemptively and repair infrastructure more cost effectively before the component’s end of life stage. This is the future of decision-making for utility maintenance. This is just the beginning.

- Kaitlyn Albertoli Co-Founder, CEO Buzz Solutions

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