It’s no secret the electrical infrastructure in the U.S. is in critical need of repair or replacement. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, the past 10 years have seen a notable rise in the number of power failures and interruptions. In fact, in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the society gave the U.S. energy infrastructure a D+ rating, noting: “Without greater attention to aging equipment, capacity bottlenecks, and increased demand, as well as increasing storm and climate impacts, Americans will likely experience longer and more frequent power interruptions.” And customer tolerance for outages, in a world of social media, is certainly not improving.
Weather—notably lightning—is one of the major culprits with power outages, and the condition of energy grid assets plays a role in the extensiveness of the damage. One-third of all transmission line outages are lightning related, whether directly or indirectly.
Direct vs. Indirect Lightning Effects
Lightning can have both direct and indirect effects on the power grid. Direct effects of lightning strikes are more readily recognizable and often include the burnout or explosion of electrical power and distribution equipment. Indirect effects can be more difficult to identify or account for because they are caused not by direct lightning strikes, but by increases in ground voltage when lightning hits the earth. This increased ground voltage causes voltage and current surges in an area’s electric power, which in turn may burn out electrical equipment.
Lightning damage is especially difficult to mitigate because strikes can happen near cables or other parts where damage is not readily identifiable, causing equipment to fail days or even weeks after the storm and masking the source of the outage. As a result, utilities may have to spend significant money and resources to carry out a patrol exercise to inspect assets and find the source of the damage.
Real-time Weather Intelligence Supports Asset Inspection
While all aging assets can’t be fixed overnight, utilities are increasingly adopting new but proven weather technologies to better help identify, manage and fix damage. Leading-edge weather intelligence can correlate the location of a lightning strike and an asset, such as a transmission tower or substation. This gives forward-thinking utilities one of the most efficient ways to track down a damaged asset before it causes an outage.
At the heart of this approach is the availability of accurate, real-time weather intelligence that provides automatic notifications and alerts for assets to inspect based on weather conditions and events. With an understanding of what assets in their service territory have had lightning strikes in close proximity, utilities can schedule inspections as part of their operations and, most importantly, respond to the damage before an outage actually occurs.
After a thunderstorm rolls through the service territory, it isn’t practical to inspect all substations for damage. But a solution that can identify the small percentage of substations that took lightning hits makes such inspections practical. And intelligence-driven, proactive asset inspection can have a significant impact on utilities’ bottom lines. With a proactive asset inspection program, utilities and transmission companies can monitor the weather-related risks to their assets (including transmission towers, substations, transformers and others), promptly identify assets that may have sustained lightning damage, and discharge inspection and repair crews promptly—significantly reducing outage time. Such an inspection solution can be applied to lightning arrestors, also. The number of strikes an arrestor may have taken over time can be readily identified and can include specifics such as amperage and polarity, which relate to likelihood of damage.
A data-driven proactive asset inspection program also improves documentation and compliance by generating clear records of events and an accessible history of past occurrences. Utilities can continuously track the health of assets and maintain lightning strike damage evidence for warranty or insurance purposes. It also provides useful business intelligence for decision making, helping utilities analyze patterns by retrieving historical lightning strike reports to determine where to best invest in additional lightning protection.
In addition to post-storm inspection, such weather solutions can be used for restoration dispatching, pinpointing the locations of outages because of lightning. This can significantly reduce patrol time, ultimately speeding restoration.
How Weather Intelligence Solutions for Asset Inspection Work
Knowing there was a lightning strike in your service territory is helpful. But knowing the lightning’s characteristics and its exact location in relation to your assets is invaluable because it is actionable.
An accessible weather intelligence solution such as DTN’s WeatherSentry Online can give utility operators the actionable information they need for such weather-based inspection of assets to maximize reliability.
A weather intelligence solution will automatically correlate the lightning strikes of the past 24 hours with the location of utilities’ assets and deliver a standard, daily report from which to coordinate inspection and maintenance tasks. Sometimes referred to as a Utilities Asset Inspection Report, the data in it is immediately actionable and does not require manual calculations or comparisons.
The daily report includes the identification of all assets that have had lightning activity in close proximity, as well as the lightning strike date, time, amplitude and exact location, to help prioritize them for inspections. The polarity of strikes is also reported because positive strikes typically cause greater damage than negative ones.
Weather intelligence providers can also provide immediate access to previous lightning strike reports with filters such as specific data ranges, strengths of lightning, historical proximity of strikes, and previous damage to assets. Reporting software can also give users a probability indication that identifies nearby assets that may have been impacted.
In addition to daily inspection reports, the solution also provides inspection alerts that deploy as lightning occurs. Immediate notification can be used for faster inspection or to pinpoint outage locations for dispatching purposes, reducing patrol time.
A rich, real-time and accessible weather intelligence solution gives the actionable data you need to protect your assets, your customers and your reliability.
Cutting-edge Weather Decision Support for Utility Operations
With aging infrastructure and increased expectations for minimizing outages, utilities need every available tool to identify potential risks and mitigate them accordingly. With real-time weather intelligence that compares lightning strikes with the location of their specific assets in actionable ways, utilities have a new way to maintain reliability more efficiently than ever.
About the author: Don Leick is senior product manager for DTN Weather (formerly Schneider Electric Weather).