Reducing Operations and Maintenance Costs While Enhancing Substation Security

Utility substations play a vital role in transmitting and distributing power to thousands of customers across wide geographic regions. High-value assets, such as transformers, capacitor banks, bushings, CVT and load tap changers, to name only a few, must be regularly inspected, maintained, and repaired to mitigate the risk of severe failures and outages.

At the same time, substations, especially those in remote locations, are attractive targets for malicious actors. As critical infrastructure, substation security threats can range from petty vandalism to intentional sabotage, with widespread implications for customers and the utility.

While substation security and maintenance may seem like two different considerations for two different departments, utilities can benefit from thermal and visual sensors that provide both operational and security capabilities. With a 24/7 view of the substation, utilities can monitor the health and condition of their assets, reduce the cost of maintenance and repairs, and mitigate the risk of substation security threats.

The High Costs of Operating and Maintaining Remote Substations

A 2018 paper by The University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute showed that the total transmission, distribution, and administrative (TD&A) costs per customer have remained fairly stable over the past 50 years. The report found that the total TD&A costs for a typical utility ranged between $700 and $800 per utility customer per year. Within this total, the average cost of distribution system capital infrastructure, operation, and maintenance was about $250 to $350 per customer per year.

For a utility substation, maintenance costs generally include the cost of parts and replacement equipment, the labor required to repair and maintain assets, and the cost to manually inspect assets and components. There are also the indirect costs, such as the fines imposed by regulators in case of an outage, the opportunity costs of having technicians in the field, and the cost of truck rolls to deploy teams to remote locations on a scheduled basis.

Maintenance and repair teams are also under increasing pressure due to a number of emerging trends. Aging infrastructure across both Canada and the United States is increasing the risk of equipment failure. For example, a recent report found that the majority of US electricity systems were built more than 50 years ago, with some parts of the grid more than 100 years old.

At a time when the need for maintenance is growing, the number of people with the skills and experience needed to conduct it is falling. More than 50 percent of experienced utility workers will retire within the next decade, and fewer new workers are entering the labor pool to replace them.

Given these figures, it’s clear that utilities must move on from scheduled maintenance and find ways to reduce the time, money, and resources required to keep substations up and running.

The Shifting Substation Security Risks Threatening High-Value Assets

Operations and maintenance concerns are one thing. But simultaneously, utilities must ensure the physical security of their remote substations. As we recently highlighted, substation security threats are evolving and becoming more common and sophisticated.

For example, small-scale vandalism or copper theft can result in damage that leads to severe failures, injury, or even death. More significant attacks can also come from malicious actors, terrorist groups, or nation-states to disrupt power and cause lasting economic or social harm.

The Dual Capabilities of Thermal and Visual Sensors

While substation security and maintenance may seem like different functions, new technologies are proving to provide benefits across both applications.

Thermal and visual monitoring solutions combine operational and security capabilities into a single system. The sensors provide utilities with a continuous, 24/7 view of the substation to monitor asset performance, detect issues, and identify security risks.

For example, the thermal sensors can be programmed to scan high-value assets, such as the transformers, and alert technicians to changes in temperature that could indicate an impending failure. Technicians can then evaluate the severity of the issue, prioritize maintenance, and effectively allocate resources to go to the site to conduct the repair.

Instead of spending most of the time, money, and resources dispatching truck rolls, conducting manual inspections on substations, and identifying issues, utilities can flip the equation to focus on maintaining, repairing, and replacing components based on the condition of the assets and the information collected by the sensors.  Such systems provide utilities with the ability to trend the thermal readings over time and make educated decisions about the status of the asset.

Likewise, instead of having a separate commercial grade security system on site, the dual purpose, utility hardened visual sensors can detect security risks and alert the utility. Utility Grade solutions are designed to withstand electromagnetic and radio frequency interferences, operate on backup DC power, and seamlessly integrate with utility SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) and APM (Asset Performance Management) systems on industry standard communication protocols.

Compared to commercial-grade systems, which may have a lower upfront cost, utilities can easily justify the return and savings that come from a Utility Grade solution that is easy to deploy, integrates with existing systems and software, and can tolerate the harsh environmental conditions common for remote substations.

Better Substation Security, Operations, and Maintenance With a Single System

Remote substations make up part of the critical infrastructure that is vital to the reliable delivery of power to customers. Thermal and visual sensors can provide operational and security benefits in a single system. Not only does this reduce the cost of truck rolls and allow utilities to effectively allocate scarce maintenance resources, but it also provides an additional layer of physical security that is designed and built to be used by utilities in challenging environments. This dual benefit ensures that utilities can reduce maintenance costs, enhance reliability, and protect their substation assets from potential threats.

Ali Hamze is Vice President of Sales at Systems with Intelligence.