Photo courtesy of Hitachi Energy.
Protecting the power grid from overvoltages and service interruptions can be done with a targeted maintenance approach.

Digital Tools Can Help Address Vegetation Hazards

Aug. 22, 2023
New digital tools enable utilities to protect the grid by providing better ways to address power surges and vegetation hazards.
Failures in power grid infrastructure can lead to loss of life and property damage, exposing electric utilities to significant financial and reputational risks. As a result, utilities are looking increasingly to underground as much of their equipment as possible. However, this is not a practical option in many areas and can be prohibitively expensive.

Many power interruptions are caused by healthy trees brought down by sustained wind events located off a right-of-way. Another key source of risk is overvoltages, caused by lightning strikes and even routine switching events. These kinds of risks can be difficult to predict with human judgment alone. Fortunately, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) systems have reached a level of maturity that can help utilities to better assess their risk and develop targeted mitigation plans.

Landscape At Scale

Hitachi Energy introduced its Hitachi Vegetation Manager solution to do exactly that—enable utilities to assess risk and develop mitigation plans. Part of the company’s Lumada Inspection Insights portfolio, the vegetation manager analyzes data from drones, light detection and ranging (LiDAR), satellites and other visual inputs to prioritize potential areas of risk. In turn, this data enables utilities to optimize their deployment of resources, most notably field crews, which are in limited supply because of labor shortages. This solution features two native iOS-based field apps and a web-based back-office application, making it easy and intuitive to use.

“This approach leverages human insights garnered across traditional methods, which often have involved field crews inspecting the lines with paper maps or relying on data from disparate sources that has typically been kept in silos,” said Jeff Pauska, vegetation manager product director at Hitachi Energy. “What we are doing with Hitachi Vegetation Manager is bringing all this data together in one place, accessible through a single pane of glass, which unlocks a new level of intelligence in the decision and work-planning process.”

Beyond remote-sensing data sources, utilities benefit from capturing the tacit knowledge of foresters and arborists, supervisors, crews and others who have experience with vegetation risks in the areas they operate. Typically in the minds of individuals with the best knowledge of the territory, this information is incorporated into hazard assessments, complementing digital intelligence.

Mitigate Power Surges

Another key source of risk for T&D grids is overvoltages, most frequently caused by lightning strikes, overheating or even routine switching events. Such surges can damage electrical equipment, causing outages and prompting costly replacement of components. To address this hazard, utilities rely on surge arresters. If the overvoltage is particularly severe in terms of size or duration, the surge arresters take the brunt to protect downstream equipment. Unfortunately, in rare instances, this process can result in explosions that spread hot particles and sparks.

“In some environments, a single spark can lead to extremely destructive outcomes,” said Helena Garriga, head of power and industry components at Hitachi Energy. “Climate change is creating conditions where fire risk is increased, and so we have collaborated with our customers to find ways to avoid those sparks altogether.”

The result of this collaboration is the Spark Prevention Unit (SPU), a product installed in conjunction with surge arresters to minimize wildfire risks. SPU monitors the current and thermal load of a surge arrester and automatically disconnects it from the network in case of a thermal overload, thus preventing any arcing, sparking or ejection of hot particles that potentially could ignite a fire. The company has tens of thousands of these units deployed in the field, mainly in wildfire-prone areas like California, the Mountain West region and Australia.
Hitachi Energy recently upgraded the SPU with wireless connectivity, which makes it possible to transmit information about the status of the SPU—whether it is operational or tripped—its geographical location, the time of a tripping event and the status of its batteries to facilitate better planning of maintenance and replacement of devices. This capability enables utilities to use real-time data to identify the exact location of a disconnected surge arrester, ensuring repair crews can be dispatched appropriately and better target root-cause investigations. The Wireless SPU Indicator is currently being trialed by numerous utilities, including a municipal utility in northern California.

Dynamic Responses

Utilities are turning to a variety of new tools like Hitachi Energy’s vegetation manager and wireless SPU option to better assess their power grid infrastructure risks and develop targeted mitigation plans. Real-time data unlocks a new level of intelligence for utilities to better prioritize potential areas of risk and respond dynamically to protect the power grid.

Anthony Allard is executive vice president, managing director, U.S. and head of Hitachi Energy’s business in North America. Allard was most recently chief operating officer of Berkeley Energy Commercial Industrial Solutions (BECIS), a leading energy-as-a-service solution provider in Singapore. Having spent most of his career in the power sector at GE and Alstom Grid in the U.S., he has held several executive-level positions, including general manager and board member for Prolec GE Transformers in the U.S. He also was general manager for the XD|GE high-voltage products partnership and spent 10 years working for Alstom in both North America and the Americas in strategy and operations management roles.

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