3 Reasons Utilities Should Embrace Automated Thermal Imaging for Remote Substation Monitoring

Electrical utilities play a vital role in delivering safe and reliable power to consumers, businesses, and governments. In the U.S. alone, more than $400 billion of electricity flows through more than 7 million miles of high voltage transmission and distribution lines that criss-cross the country. More than 55,000 substations convert that voltage to distribution levels so that it can be safely used.

While utilities are responsible for building, maintaining, and managing critical infrastructure, they must also ensure they are operating efficiently, effectively, and profitably. As aging infrastructure comes up for repairs and replacement, utilities are under increasing pressure to reduce costs and gain a more complete picture of the grid.

Real-time thermal imaging allows utilities to continuously monitor the health and performance of their substation assets. This article will highlight the value of automated thermal imaging and show how utilities benefit from continuous remote substation monitoring.

Value 1 – Find Hotspots in Real-Time

The presence of heat is often an indicator that an asset may be damaged or otherwise not working properly. Sudden or prolonged thermal anomalies are the result of increased resistance or current flowing where it is not supposed to. By detecting these hotspots and diagnosing the issue, utilities can conduct maintenance and repairs or replace the damaged component.

Utilities are already familiar with thermal imaging technology. Crews are deployed on a scheduled basis to manually inspect assets with handheld thermal sensors. While this approach can detect issues, it is costly and increases the risk that issues go undetected.

Alternatively, utilities can implement dedicated wired sensors to monitor each individual asset or component. While this is often a significant improvement over periodic inspections, the sensors are costly to deploy and often require utilities to schedule an outage to install, repair, or replace the sensors. A recent Duke Energy project reported that up to 75 percent of the project costs were due to the installation and wiring of sensors.

Instead, thermal imaging sensors can be deployed to monitor multiple substation assets in real-time. A single thermal sensor on a pan and tilt base can monitor over a hundred points. Thermal sensors are part of TouchlessTM technology, they don’t require physical contact to the points they are monitoring and, in many cases, they don’t require an outage to install. Advanced analytics automatically detect thermal anomalies and notify users through email or alarms connected to the SCADA system. Maintenance crews can then diagnose the issue from a central location and prioritize a response based on the condition of the asset, the severity of the issue, and the expected time to failure.

Value 2 – Mitigate Risk and Reduce Cost of Failures

Utilities have long relied on manual inspections. But one of the most significant downsides of this approach is that they only take place periodically – typically once or twice a year. In the meantime, a minor issue can go undetected between inspections and grow into a more severe failure that results in an unplanned outage.

Reliability metrics such as SAIDI (System Average Interruption Duration Index) and SAIFI (System Average Interruption Frequency Index) are critical for electrical utilities. Beyond the need to keep power flowing to customers, outages can result in costly fines, regulatory penalties, reputational damage, and long-term harm to the utility’s overall performance.

Thermal imaging sensors allow utilities to take a proactive approach to maintenance. Crews can be dispatched to repair a known issue before it disrupts the flow of power, while the operations and maintenance team can monitor dozens or hundreds of substations simultaneously.

The savings can quickly add up. One utility that had deployed thermal sensors expected to see a 20 percent decrease in the number of breakdowns – a savings of upwards of $9 million each year.

Value 3 – 10 Year Lifespan With Minimal Maintenance

Some utilities already use commercial-grade cameras to monitor the safety and security of remote substations. However, these cameras are often poorly suited to challenging outdoor environments and need frequent repairs. Damage from water, dirt, dust, and debris, as well as electromagnetic interference caused by high-voltage electrical infrastructure, all limit the effectiveness of these commercial-grade solutions.

Thermal imaging sensors, on the other hand, have been designed and built for the utility industry. IP66-rated for outdoor environments, and designed with high levels of electromagnetic, (EMI), and  electrostatic discharge, (ESD), protection keeps the durable sensors operating in harsh conditions with minimal maintenance requirements.

Combined, these features allow thermal imaging sensors to be deployed for up to ten years. Depending on the size of the deployment and the savings achieved by switching to a Condition-Based Maintenance strategy, utilities can comfortably achieve a positive ROI in less than three years.

Finally, the sensors seamlessly integrate with common utility applications and protocols, enabling a single-pain-of-glass view of the health and performance of substation assets.

Realizing the Value of Thermal Imaging Sensors

Thermal imaging sensors have the potential to significantly reduce operations and maintenance costs, mitigate the risk of downtime and unplanned outages, enhance efficiency, and improve long-term performance. With real-time continuous monitoring, maintenance crews can spend less time, money, and resources traveling to remote substations and more time ensuring that critical infrastructure is delivering reliable power to customers.