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Infrastructure Outlook: Remote Sensing for Distribution Networks Drives Safety, Reliability and New Insights

Matt Nugent on November 11, 2019 - in Articles, Column

There’s an increasing focus on the reliability and resiliency of the nation’s electric grid; outages have continued to grow in frequency and cost. More than 37 million people were affected by more than 3,500 outage events in 2017, compared to 2009, when only 13 million people were impacted by about 2,800 outages, according to the 2017 Eaton Blackout Tracker. Aging infrastructure, greater demand for service and the need to place additional equipment on existing poles to support 5G and small-cell networks are seriously taxing today’s distribution networks.

Keeping up with maintenance and upgrades to the distribution infrastructure is a huge challenge for utilities. There are approximately 170 million utility poles in the United States that need to be inspected to ensure they’re sound and not at risk to damage from weather, vegetation or other factors. Because inspection cycles range from every five, eight or 10 years—and utilities mainly rely on individual employees to physically inspect each pole—only about 21 million poles a year can be assessed. And the ability to address even this many poles may be hampered as utilities face an aging workforce nearing retirement.

This “boots on the ground” approach also is fraught with errors and inconsistencies. And because utilities stick to planned inspection cycles, they can miss addressing some of the riskiest areas that impact reliability. These cycles may not occur fast enough to adjust to regulatory or market changes, such as a 5G network deployment that relies on joint use of poles.

Advantages of LiDAR-Based Remote Sensing

To improve grid reliability and resiliency, utilities must leverage technology to help speed the inspection process, improve the accuracy of their findings and gain an overall better understanding of their assets. This is where remote sensing can play a valuable role.

An increasing number of utilities are exploring how LiDAR-based remote sensing can be effective for quickly and frequently monitoring their distribution infrastructure as well as gaining more granular visibility into its health. Remote sensing can help utilities with the following:

Asset Inventory. Remote sensing gives an accurate view of the number of poles and where they’re located, enabling more-thorough inspections and reducing risk that poles are missed during the process. LiDAR also can provide a baseline for comparing condition of poles during future inspections. Increasing accuracy and specificity is needed in GIS data to support modern technology such as outage management systems (OMS) and automated distribution management systems (ADMS). Remote sensing can correct and add detailed attribution for the assets needed to support these crucial new systems.

Identifying Existing Risk. Remote sensing can provide detailed information about the condition of a pole and its surrounding environment. For example, LiDAR surveys can accurately assess if a pole is leaning, whether conductors are too close, or if vegetation or wildlife is encroaching. Utilities then can leverage these data against weather patterns and other risk factors (e.g., fire, landslide, etc.) to determine if they need to perform maintenance work or replace a pole now vs. at some regularly scheduled interval in the future.

Analyzing Potential Risk. Remote sensing data also enable utilities to determine the future risk against an asset. For example, LiDAR can help identify various species of vegetation near poles, which enables utilities to target areas where fast-growing trees or plants may cause a problem and begin proactive vegetation-management activities. Other data, such as slope analysis or building encroachment, can be integrated with the asset inventory to help utilities address those issues.

Utilities—and the consumers and businesses that rely on their service—are being impacted by the aging grid and outdated and time-consuming inspection processes that can’t keep up with today’s demands. Remote sensing is an ideal complement to the boots on the ground approach, improving safety, speeding inspections, and delivering accurate and consistent data that can be used to enable utilities to become more proactive in maintaining and upgrading their distribution infrastructure, supporting greater reliability and resiliency in the long run.

Matt Nugent

About Matt Nugent

Matt Nugent is the senior product manager at Quantum Spatial Inc.; email: mnugent@quantumspatial.com.

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