gremlin/Getty Images
Getty Images 1401797830

Exponentially Challenged: Dealing with Technological Change in the Utility Industry

Feb. 22, 2023
When it comes to cutting-edge improvements they tend to be more like quantum leaps than continual improvements.

It’s no secret that I’m a techno-junkie, but a lesser-known fact is that I’m also a bookworm. And sometimes the stars align, providing me with not only some interesting technology, but also a book with some insights into a state-of-the-art technology or the human's interaction with the gadget. That is exactly what happened recently when Santa brought me a copy Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest literary work, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization.

Dr. Tyson’s book offered some interesting opinions about why we (humans) have such a hard time dealing with change. Personally I can’t think of anything more change-inducing than technological advancements, which is especially true when it comes to the power delivery system. Smart grid technologies have been described as transformational, evolutionary, game-changing, and many more, but none of it happened without a great deal of pushback from stakeholders.

Tyson explained the resistance was due to humans being “wired” to think linearly (i.e., “additives and multiples”), but changes often happen exponentially (“number raised to the power of another number”). After some contemplation I started thinking about it in terms of being exponentially challenged when it comes to technology.

Most of us would rather follow a sequential trail of developmental breadcrumbs, but I can’t think of any radical innovations that happened that way. Unfortunately, when it comes to cutting-edge improvements they tend to be more like quantum leaps than continual improvements.

Technological Pushback

Many years ago I was designing substations using AutoCAD. The technology improved to the point it was easy to design a substation in 3D (three dimensions) for those who thought spatially. My team and I were really excited about it. We came up with a complete 3D drawing package, but when it was presented there was significant pushback from all levels of engineering.

The client’s manager and his staff could not figure out what they were looking at. My team and I were sent back to the office to redraw the station using traditional methods (i.e., section and elevation views). That wasn’t a big deal with this technology, a few clicks on the menu and AutoCAD produced the desired drawing package. A funny side note of this story happened a few months later when we started the construction phase.

I met with the construction foreman and his staff. They had reviewed the drawing package and had a suggestion. They had been working in California with utilities who produced all their construction drawings in 3D, which provided more detail and were easier to follow. I walked back to my truck and brought them my 3D set. Nowadays 3D drawings are commonplace, and have morphed into virtual representations of the power grid, but it was rough going initially.

Yesterday vs. Today

My 3D adventure was a long time ago, but exponential challenges have no shelf life. Recently a FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) message crossed my virtual desk. FERC’s Order No. 881 has been getting some attention and FERC had comments. The order addresses increasing the capacity of the nation’s transmission system using ambient-adjusted rating methods like dynamic line rating (DLR) technology.

Back when transmission technology was developing, a group of experts formed to create a safe method of determining the maximum transfer capacity of a transmission line. Not having the benefit of modern sensors, they authored a series of conservative tables based on assumptions. Amazingly this old-school system is still used today. Over the years, there have been efforts to modernize the tables, but that only resulted in generating assumption-based seasonally adjusted tables.

DLR systems on the other hand have actually increased existing transmission lines’ maximum transfer capability anywhere from 10% to 25% or more than what they were designed for using the tables. DLR takes advantage real-time data combined with line behavioral modeling. The technology, however, is one of those exponential changes we started off with in this discussion.

Telling someone they can increase the capacity of a transmission line by 25% because of a new technological application has proven to be hard to accept. After all, it doesn’t involve any physical changes to the transmission line. It only requires the addition of some sensors and transducers feeding data into a computer. Still a 25% increase in capacity can no longer be ignored.

This is especially true today when there over 1,400 gigawatts of renewable energy projects currently in connection queues vying for the grid’s limited transmission capacity. Let’s get comfortable with technology’s quantum leap capabilities; we need them!

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of T&D World, create an account today!