The North American power grid is under increasing stress. Aging infrastructure is being asked to do more with less as demand for power grows and reliable access to electricity impacts nearly all aspects of our daily lives.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts world energy usage will increase by nearly 50 percent by 2050. Much of this increase will take place as emerging economies electrify a greater share of their populations, but the ongoing shift toward electric vehicles and the electrification of other energy-intensive processes will drive demand for electricity in developed economies.
In response, utilities are taking a more proactive approach by strengthening the grid, investing in critical infrastructure, and improving resilience. Substation monitoring using thermal and visual sensors is just one approach utilities can deploy to reduce operational and maintenance costs and protect vital transmission and distribution infrastructure.
This article will explore some of the key trends that are leading to increased stress on the power grid.
Aging Transmission and Distribution Infrastructure
Across North America, components of the power grid have reached, or are about to reach, the end of their lifespan. Reports in both Canada and the U.S. found that the majority of electricity systems were built more than 50 years ago, with some parts of the grid more than 100 years old. Nearly 70 percent of transmission and distribution lines in the U.S. were in the second half of their useful life.
Utilities are making significant investments in critical infrastructure. U.S. utilities spent more than $31 billion on capital investments in 2019, while Canadian spending reached $24.4 billion in 2018. Looking ahead, the U.S. plans to invest 2.3 trillion in infrastructure, with a significant portion of this going toward transforming the power grid.
Much of this spending focuses on replacing, modernizing, and expanding existing infrastructure, enhancing substation transformers and other equipment, and introducing new materials and technologies that increase resilience and reduce the risk of outages.
Severe Weather, Wildfires, and Climate Change
Weather has always been a key concern for utilities. But the risk of weather-related outages and stress on the power grid is expected to grow as climate change causes more frequent and severe events.
There were 638 transmission outages in the U.S. from 2014 to 2018. Among these, 50 percent were caused by severe weather. Heatwaves, wildfires, winter storms, hurricanes, and other natural disasters damage infrastructure, disrupt power, and cost the U.S. economy between $28 and $169 billion annually. Further, the frequency and intensity of these outages are accelerating, and outages due to severe weather have been found to be longer and more difficult to repair.
In response, utilities are investing in preventing wildfires by monitoring transmission and distribution lines and strengthening substation equipment to increase the resiliency of the system as a whole.
Shortages of Skilled Workers
At a time when the power grid is being asked to do more, there are fewer people with the skills and experience required to keep it up and running. An aging workforce of linemen, power system engineers, and other skilled workers are nearing retirement and leaving the field, forcing utilities to find new ways to attract, train, and retain talent.
A recent report by the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the average age of workers in the utility industry is 50, and that at least 50 percent of workers are expected to retire within the next decade. This is coupled with a larger trend away from skilled trades, with younger workers more likely than the previous generation to opt for a college degree in favor of trade school. In addition to a shortage of workers to fill these positions, utilities face a significant and sudden loss of experience, expertise, and skills built up by these older workers that will take time and training to effectively replace.
Transition to Renewable Energy
Fossil fuels, mostly natural gas and coal, combine to account for nearly 60 percent of all electricity generated in the United States. However, renewables are now the second-largest source of electricity, having surpassed both coal and nuclear for the first time in 2020. Globally, nearly 95 percent of new power generating capacity will come from renewable sources, and U.S. intends to move the power sector to 100 percent emissions free electricity by 2035.
While the transition toward sustainable energy sources is critical to confront climate change and reduce C02 and other emissions, it will also place new pressures on the power grid. Renewables such as solar and wind are variable power sources, meaning they only produce electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Further, renewables may be deployed as a larger number of smaller generating facilities, rather than a single large natural gas plant or hydropower dam generating electricity for a vast geographic region.
Shifting generating patterns and a more distributed and decentralized network of generating facilities will require new and innovative approaches to building and maintaining the power grid.
Power Line and Substation Monitoring for Increased Reliability and Lower Maintenance Costs
As utilities respond to these stresses and invest more in critical power grid infrastructure, transmission and distribution lines, and substations, they must ensure that these components are effectively monitored, maintained, and repaired.
Power line and substation monitoring leverages thermal and visual cameras with advanced analytics to automatically take temperature readings of power line and substation equipment, detect potential issues, and alert the operations team to perform maintenance and conduct repairs. By taking an automated and touchless approach, utilities can reduce maintenance costs, proactively monitor the performance and condition of high-value assets, and respond to minor problems before a catastrophic failure occurs.