Maintaining Remote Substations – Four Challenges Utilities Can Overcome With Touchless™ Monitoring

Utility substations play a vital role in the transmission and distribution of electricity to customers, businesses, and communities. However, keeping these substations up and running can be challenging, especially when they are in remote locations far from other infrastructure.

Aging equipment, inefficient resource allocation, and a lack of visibility into unmonitored sites all contribute to higher operations and maintenance (O&M) costs, reduced reliability, and an increased risk of severe equipment failure.

Given the complexities of operating and maintaining remote substations, utilities require an innovative approach to monitoring industrial-grade assets, detecting and diagnosing issues, and dispatching teams to conduct maintenance and repairs.

Challenge 1 – Maintaining Aging Infrastructure

Despite recent investments, much of the utility infrastructure in Canada and the United States has reached the backend of its useful life. For example, one study found that 70 percent of large power transformers installed and operating in the US were 25 years of age or older, with the average age of transformers nearly 40 years. Given that it can cost millions of dollars and take anywhere from 6 months to 2 years to import replacements, these assets must be well maintained to ensure the reliable delivery of power.

The impacts of aging infrastructure are already being felt by customers. A recent analysis found that major outages grew ten times more common from the 1980s to 2012, while a separate report showed that utility customers in the US experienced 1.33 billion outage hours in 2020.

Challenge 2 – Accessing Remote Substations

Remote substations, as the name implies, are often located far from cities and other infrastructure. This makes accessing them difficult, time-consuming, and costly. When left unmonitored, maintenance crews must be dispatched on a scheduled basis to perform inspections, detect and diagnose potential issues, procure replacement parts, and conduct maintenance and repairs.

The added complexity of accessing remote sites significantly increases the cost of maintenance. In fact, one report suggested that 20 percent of the total O&M budgets were allocated to travel time costs. Beyond the direct costs, however, scheduled inspections also increase the risk that something goes wrong without anyone knowing. In these cases, minor, easily fixed, or transient issues could go undetected and unresolved for months between inspections, eventually resulting in more serious failures.

Challenge 3 – Monitoring Multiple Systems, Subsystems, and Components

Transformers, cooling systems, bushings, and load tap changers are among the most common failures within a utility substation, but they are not the only pieces of equipment that utilities need to monitor. Even small substations have thousands of subsystems, parts, and components that can fail and require maintenance.

Monitoring these individually poses a significant challenge, and physical inspections must be conducted on a periodic basis. Alternatively, utilities can utilize specialized wired sensors to monitor each asset.

While wired sensors are an improvement, there are still major drawbacks to this approach. Not only do they add further complexity to the site, but they are also extremely expensive to install. A recent Duke Energy project reported that up to 75 percent of the project costs were due to the installation and wiring of sensors. What’s more, installing, maintaining, and replacing wired sensors can require downtime and outages, further increasing the cost to utilities.

Challenge 4 – Withstanding Harsh Environments

Utility substations operate in harsh, challenging environments. As a result, utilities must ensure the systems used to monitor the health of their assets can withstand these conditions.

Common environmental hazards include water, dust, and other debris. More severe weather events, including extreme temperatures, storms, flooding, and wildfires can also disrupt both the substation and the monitoring equipment.

Beyond weather, electric power substations produce elevated levels of electromagnetic and radio frequency radiation that can damage electronics that are not properly isolated.

Given these challenges, commercial-grade sensors and cameras are often poorly suited to utility environments.

How Touchless™ Monitoring Solutions Overcome the Complexities and Reduce O&M Costs

Thermal sensors have long been used by utilities to conduct periodic, manual inspections. Today, new systems allow thermal and visual sensors to be deployed for continuous, 24/7 coverage of remote substations.

Rather than spending the majority of their time traveling to sites and inspecting equipment, maintenance teams can be alerted to a fault in real-time. Data from the system allows users to diagnose the issue and prioritize responses based on the severity of the failure, the lead time for replacement parts, and the availability of maintenance teams.

Touchless™ thermal sensors are non-invasive and easy to install, meaning they do not require downtime or outages. The sensors can be programmed to patrol and  cover multiple assets and components, reducing the need for specialized wired sensors, while the utility-grade equipment is designed to withstand harsh environmental conditions.

Keeping Substation Assets in Good Health

Remote substations will always be complex environments. But technology is helping utilities overcome these challenges and operate these critical infrastructure sites more efficiently, effectively, and reliably.

A Touchless™ Monitoring system provides better visibility into remote sites and assets and helps to ensure that industrial-grade substation assets are kept in good working condition. By shifting away from scheduled maintenance plans toward a Condition Based Maintenance approach, an automated monitoring system reduces maintenance costs, improves reliability, and allows for the effective utilization and deployment of scarce resources.