Improving Operations and Reducing Costs – How Utilities Benefit from Automated Thermal Imaging

Electrical utilities across North America are making significant investments in transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure. Growing demand for electrical power, stronger regulation, and the proliferation of renewable energy sources are placing added strain on aging infrastructure. In response, the industry is moving to enhance reliability, increase capacity, and reduce the cost of maintenance and repairs.

Canada’s energy sector invested more than $21 billion in electrical power generation and transmission infrastructure in 2021, while U.S. investor-owned electrical companies spent more than $65 billion on T&D improvements.

Inspecting, maintaining, and repairing critical substation assets places a massive burden on electrical utilities and takes scarce resources away from these strategic investments. Instead of dispatching crews to conduct physical inspections, utilities can instead deploy automated thermal and visual imaging sensors to remotely monitor the health and performance of hundreds of substations from a centralized location.

This article will highlight how utilities benefit from remote monitoring and show the business case for implementing thermal and visual sensors.

Improving Reliability Metrics and Mitigating the Risk of Downtime

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. power customers experienced an average of 4.7 hours of interruptions in 2019.

Key reliability metrics such as SAIDI (System Average Interruption Duration Index) and SAIFI (System Average Interruption Frequency Index) measure the length and frequency of power disruptions. Improving these metrics is a critical priority for utilities, as the cost of outages can be extremely high due to lost revenue, regulatory penalties, and reputational damage.

Ensuring reliability across hundreds of substations is a significant challenge. Many utilities use a time-based maintenance strategy, deploying crews to substations on a scheduled basis a few times a year.

The risk, however, is that a minor issue that occurs between these inspections goes undetected until it grows into a more severe failure. For example, replacing a faulty bushing  on one of the transformers is a relatively simple fix if detected early. But if left to get worse, it can result in a catastrophic and costly failure.

Utility-grade thermal and visual sensors can monitor critical substation assets, detect changes in temperature that indicate a need for maintenance, and automatically alert the maintenance department so that crews can be deployed to conduct the repair.

Increasing Safety for Employees and the Public

Utilities have made aggressive investments to improve safety for both workers and the general public, but high-voltage electrical infrastructure is still dangerous if not properly maintained. Citing census data, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that line workers had a fatality rate of 19.2 per 100,000 workers, ranking it among the top 10 most dangerous jobs in the country. A 2021 survey also showed that 2,400 workers were injured per 100,000.

While not all incidents occurred at substations, maintenance teams that arrive at a substation without knowing the condition of the equipment are at increased risk of injury. For example, a worker may not be aware that a copper thief or vandal has removed the grounding wires from a site, putting them at risk from a floating system.

Remote monitoring allows issues to be detected before a crew is sent to the substation. With more information about the health of the assets, workers can operate safely and effectively and spend less time on the site, reducing their exposure to hazardous conditions.

Keeping the public safe is an important priority as well. Visual cameras function as a deterrent to vandals and thieves, while the reduced risk of transformer failure keeps surrounding communities safe.

Reducing Maintenance Costs and Achieving a Positive ROI

Maintenance makes up a signification portion of a utility’s total budget, and it’s here where the biggest savings can be achieved through remote monitoring. As much as 20 percent of the total operations and maintenance (O&M) budget can be attributed to travel time, with crews en route to or from substations to conduct scheduled maintenance.

Alternatively, remote monitoring with industrial thermal imaging allows maintenance teams to be deployed to a known issue. By taking a condition-based maintenance approach, utilities can reduce the cost of inspections and maintenance and allocate budget and scarce resources to other initiatives.

This approach can reduce planned O&M costs by up to 50 percent.

While the payback period for the procurement, installation, and management of the sensors depends on the size of the deployment, the number of sensors and substations, and the utility’s ability to adjust its maintenance strategy, a typical installation can achieve a positive ROI in two-to-three years.

With a lifespan of more than 10 years, the utility-grade sensors require limited ongoing maintenance themselves, freeing up utilities to focus on improving operations and investing in new infrastructure.

The Case for Remote Monitoring With Thermal and Visual Sensors

Utilities already use thermal sensors for physical inspections and maintenance. Remote monitoring allows them to continuously view thermal and visual data from all the substations in their network from a central location. By reducing the need for manual inspections, enhancing reliability metrics, and improving safety for both workers and the general public, utilities can achieve a positive ROI on the sensors within only a couple of years.

As such, there is a clear business case for implementing remote monitoring as part of a condition-based maintenance strategy.