Navigant Research Blog

High Resolution Sensors Open New Windows onto the Grid

— March 26, 2015

The advances in transmission and distribution (T&D) system sensors, communications, and visualization technology are remarkable. At DistribuTECH 2015, I was able to talk to key vendors in the T&D marketplace, including established players, such as ABB, GE, Landis & Gyr, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), and Siemens, as well as emerging companies, such as Genscape on the transmission grid and Tollgrade on the distribution grid, which both offer innovative new monitoring and visualization solutions. These relatively young companies are taking the industry to a next level in sensor technology, wireless communications, and visualization/analytic tools.

While Genscape is a new entrant in the transmission operator/utility marketplace, it operates the world’s largest private network of in-the-field monitors, providing cloud based software as a service (SaaS) applications for market intelligence across the power, oil, natural gas, petrochemical, agriculture, biofuels, and maritime freight sectors. The company’s applications are used by most energy trading companies, and are used to non-intrusively monitor generation plant outputs, outages, and other transmission line conditions.

Unbound

Genscape has a wide range of customers in electric power trading and oil & gas commodity markets.  With the recent acquisition of Promethean Devices in 2014, Genscape also provides high resolution, sub-second transmission line monitoring of current, conductor sag/clearance, conductor temperature, and voltage, using an easy to deploy ground based solar powered sensor system. With the high cost of land-based fiber systems typically installed by utilities, Genscape’s solution offers an elegant and relatively inexpensive cloud-based solution.

Focused primarily on the medium-voltage (MV) and low-voltage (LV) distribution grid, Tollgrade offers bolt-on line sensing units with high speed wireless communications capabilities, as well as a cloud-based SaaS optimization and visualization tool set that can be tied into a utility’s distribution automation system. The company’s fault-detection hardware and predictive analytics software are designed to assist distribution network operators in avoiding network outages and reducing customer downtime. The sensing units are low cost and can be installed by a distribution system lineman in minutes at any location on the distribution system.

The really striking thing about Tollgrade’s technology is the analytics and visualization tools, which can be used to drill down in outage and fault data to screen, locate, and then analyze breaker trips and outages anywhere on the monitored portions of the distribution network in real time.

Both of these companies have the potential to significantly change the level of visibility into T&D grid performance, providing tools for understanding the disturbances that are never seen in the data typically collected by utilities using conventional solutions.

 

Robots Reduce Risks for Utility Line Workers

— March 11, 2015

In 2014, Time magazine reported on the 2013 rankings of America’s most dangerous jobs. Electrical power line installers and repairers suffered 27 fatalities per 100,000 workers, making these the 7th most dangerous jobs in the country. While fatalities are down from around 30 to 50 annually in past years, according to T&D World magazine, the fatality rate is more than twice that of police officers and fireman. Fortunately, new technologies are expected to reduce these deaths in the coming years.

The most common cause of death to linemen is live, energized wires. T&D World also reports that new technologies used to maintain, repair, and rebuild lines and transmission equipment are now being developed and deployed. These technologies include a range of robotic devices that are designed to minimize risk to field employees while at the same time reducing operational costs and maintaining or improving transmission and distribution system reliability.

Almost Indestructible

With the speed of technical development and advances in artificial intelligence, new applications and technologies are certain to emerge in future years. For now, robotic grid technologies fall into three categories:

  • Line-suspended robots: Deployed over the last 8 years, these devices are designed to perform visual inspections and maintenance functions previously completed by utility linemen under sometimes dangerous conditions. They use cameras and specialized sensors for inspections, and can make basic repairs and adjustments to transmission lines, as well as other necessary applications. These robots can travel over and across live transmission system conductor lines under most conditions. Hydro Quebec has developed a line-suspended robotic device called LineScout that is being deployed on power lines where it has the capacity to cross obstacles. Another robotic device called LineROVer is used by the utility as a remotely operated vehicle for work on live overhead lines.
  • Ground-based robots: Designed to manipulate energized conductors remotely and execute tasks that are far too dangerous for linemen, these technologies have been in use for more than 10 years and are increasingly able to handle large, heavy conductors. These machines are best at tasks like maintenance, upgrades, and construction of transmission lines, performing jobs such as replacing structures and conductors and changing insulation.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): Often called drones, UAVs are designed for visual inspections of transmission line components, right-of-way (ROW) conditions, vegetation under the ROW, access into structures, landslides near structure footings, and other unusual conditions. You can read more about drones in my previous Navigant Research blog.

The spreading use of robotics could improve grid operations and, more importantly, reduce the danger to electrical power line installers and repairers. If that happens, linemen will soon drop out of the top 10 rankings of dangerous jobs.

 

Utilities Send in the Drones

— February 19, 2015

Your local electric utility may be the next company to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a.k.a. drones, in your community. Transmission and distribution utilities are planning to deploy fleets of drones for power line inspections in order to more rapidly identify foliage encroachments on power lines, storm damage, and overloading in both urban and remote areas.

These types of inspections typically have been completed using manned helicopters. Since the Northeast blackout in 2003, North American electric utilities have spent millions to fly helicopters over their power lines to meet new grid reliability standards. Drones offer a cheaper and more reliable alternative.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show in Las Vegas, a whole section of the exhibit floor was devoted to drone technologies. Forward-thinking utilities have picked up that point.

What They Need to Know

A recent article in Electric Light & Power discussed the utilization of light-reflecting imaging technologies that create 3D images of the environment, called Lidar, to more thoroughly monitor electric transmission rights-of-way. According to Duke Energy, “Lidar’s 3-D models tell us everything we need to know about loading on our lines and nearby encroachments.”

Innovative electric transmission and distribution operators have been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to utilize UAVs across their systems. However, utilities won’t be piloting drones until the FAA finalizes rules that govern their safe operations in the National Airspace System. The FAA planned to finalize those rules by 2015 but is not expected to meet that deadline. Utility proponents suggest UAVs can make the nation’s infrastructure more reliable and secure, perhaps warranting an FAA exemption.

Unmanned Pilots

A number of pilot demonstrations of UAV applications and use cases have been occurring across the United States, notably with Duke Energy on the East Coast and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) in the west. The use cases for UAVs are not limited to transmission and distribution power line inspection; they also include critical functions such as:

  • Solar PV panel inspections to identify damages to PV panels and schedule maintenance across thousands of panels. UAVs can find individual damaged solar panels amid thousands by using thermal imaging to detect anomalous heat signatures.
  • High-risk jobs like scanning a wind turbine blade for cracks 400 feet in the air without human intervention.
  • Improved power restoration efforts in the aftermath of major storms. For example, in 2012, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) suggested drones could assess damage and help bucket trucks and line technicians prioritize power restoration.

In 2014, the FAA granted SDG&E an experimental certificate, also known as a Special Airworthiness Certificate, for UAVs. That certificate allows SDG&E to use drones for research, testing, and training flights in lightly populated airspace in eastern San Diego County. “The unmanned aircraft system provides us with another tool in our electric and gas operations tool chest,” said Dave Geier, SDG&E’s vice president of electric transmission and system engineering.

 

Utility-Scale Energy Storage: The Next Killer App

— February 10, 2015

In recent years in the power sector, companies like C3 Energy and Space-Time Insight have been introducing groundbreaking applications that can provide powerful data and insights across the utility value chain, from the customer to the independent system operator (ISO). Looking back over the Navigant Research utility transmission and distribution technology forecasts in our syndicated reports—and our 10-year forecasts for those technologies—it’s clear that utility-scale energy storage is among the technologies undergoing the most dramatic transformations, thanks to these applications.

Since 2009, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have invested millions of dollars in utility-scale storage through both smart grid demonstration project funds and Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) R&D grants.

Next-Generation Investment

In December, Eos Energy Storage announced that it had won a $2 million award from the CEC to deploy and demonstrate a 1 MW grid-scale battery system at Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E’s) Smart Grid Lab in San Ramon, California. The project, called Aurora, was the only advanced battery storage system recipient of grant funding.

According to Eos, its Aurora battery system “can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of existing energy storage solutions.” The Edison, New Jersey-based company is joining with PG&E, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), distributed energy storage technology pioneer Stem, and ETM Electromatic to carry out the project.

“This type of project deployment can meet the requirements of California’s utilities and industrial users at a price that will compete with gas peaking plants, providing both peak generation and infrastructure benefits,” said Philippe Bouchard, Eos vice president of Business Development, in a statement.

Strategy for Scale

Eos’ Aurora direct current (DC) battery, power electronics from ETM, and Stem’s real-time data analytics are being implemented at PG&E’s Smart Grid Lab in San Ramon.  EPRI is managing interconnection and systems integration requirements. LBNL will employ real-time grid simulation to assess “system benefits under dynamic load and renewable integration use cases.”

The Eos Aurora 1000/4000 battery system delivers 1 MW of electrical power for 4 hours, which is more than enough to mitigate peak power demands, thus avoiding costly investments in transmission and distribution upgrades. It also offers fast-response surge capabilities that can manage the intermittency of solar, wind, and other renewable energy grid assets.

Looking further down the road, so to speak, it’s clear that energy storage will advance thanks to major investment from car makers such as Tesla, which is placing its bets with the new Gigafactory in Nevada. Large volumes of mass-produced batteries will be essential to Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers. And this mass production strategy for battery technology also brings increased scale that may reduce deployment costs. With clever engineering, this strategy will help expand residential and utility deployments, as well.

 

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