Keeping The Lights On

Electric co-ops lead the way in introducing outage-prevention technology
By Maurice Martin and Brian Sloboda
Keeping The Lights On

“Ti,” a 140-pound robot being developed by the Electric Power Research Institute, hangs gondola-style from bulk power lines and rides slowly from tower to tower, monitoring the condition of the lines. Robots like Ti seek to prevent power outages.

In keeping with their tradition of innovation, electric co-ops are working hard to introduce new technologies that will increase service reliability, decrease outage time, and improve safety for line crews and the public.

One of the major areas where advancements are taking place involves down-line automation. An umbrella term describing the use of digital meters and equipment, software applications and two-way communications, down-line automation can allow your electric cooperative to:

  • effectively monitor the flow of electricity in near real-time
  • identify and self correct voltages out of allowed ranges
  • pinpoint outage location and reroute the power to minimize the number of meters effected by the fault

Such systems transmit signals to transformers, capacitors, circuit breakers and other control devices to initiate diagnostic or corrective actions that can isolate, reroute power around, or even remotely repair the cause of a power interruption.

With down-line automation, co-ops can reduce how long an outage lasts, and lower the number of members who lose power.

One of the most promising advances in down-line automation — called distribution fault analysis (DFA)—taps high-resolution monitors installed on electric lines and cutting-edge algorithms in order to zero in on hard-to-find electric system trouble spots before they morph into full-blown outages. DFA "reads and identifies" specific fault signatures in a waveform — such as a cracked insulator or a tree limb occasionally brushing a line and causing a blink. Instead of learning about an event, like an outage, reactively, co-ops can investigate, diagnose, and fix a potential problem ahead of time.

An electric cooperative in Tennessee has been testing a DFA system designed by Texas A&M University and the Electric Power Research Institute, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based non-profit consortium whose members include co-ops. Other electric cooperatives have signed up to test DFA's potential through the Cooperative Research Network, an independent research and development service of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Another down-line tool that could improve electric reliability entails using robots to check out the condition of transmission lines. Like DFA, robots seek to prevent outages. But unlike DFA, robots directly inspect cables and other components rather than waveforms. Robots can work on the ground or in the sky, and some even operate while suspended from live power lines.

In sprawling, rugged service territories with densities sometimes as low as two or three consumers per mile, down-line automation and diagnostics can substantially lower costs by reducing truck rolls. Following massive storms, the ability to target outage locations from the office and efficiently dispatch line crews can significantly speed up getting the lights back on.

The above developments are really no surprise - innovation is a key part our cooperative DNA. It embodies the same spirit that drove rural residents to find ways to overcome seemingly insurmountable technical, engineering, legal, political and financial hurdles and bring central station electric service to all corners of America.

Our not-for-profit, consumer-oriented business structure ensures all decisions technology-based or otherwise focus on our core mission: providing members with a safe, reliable and affordable supply of power.

About the Author

Maurice Martin is senior program manager specializing in transmission and information technology for the Cooperative Research Network (CRN), a service of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Brian Sloboda is senior program manager specializing in distribution operations for CRN.

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