The T&D segment is harnessing digital transformation to ensure reliability and resilience
The US transmission and distribution (T&D) segment is being buffeted simultaneously by the five disrupters mentioned earlier. These intensifying phenomena could impact reliability and resiliency, which are among the top concerns for utilities. Right behind that is keeping costs in check. And with an estimated $1.1 trillion required to replace, expand, and upgrade the US electric grid through 2040 to maintain reliability and resiliency,9 the math is compelling. For example, if digital innovation could help avoid or defer even 3% of these expenditures, it would save a staggering $33 billion.
CURRENT STATUS: The T&D segment is typically at the Integrate/Aggregate phase, though many rural utilities may still be in the Communicate phase as remote assets may lack access to high speed communications.
Because it traverses thousands of miles and reaches into each individual home and business, the T&D system is especially difficult to monitor and the stakes of missing something can be high. That may explain why the segment has a keen interest in advanced monitoring and inspection technologies to help ensure reliability, boost resilience, and reduce costs. In some cases, such as during the ever-lengthening wildfire season, automated remote monitoring could even help prevent fires if objects touching high voltage wires are detected and the condition can be more immediately addressed. In comparison, conventional inspection techniques typically involve on-foot visual inspections, which are expensive, labor-intensive, and can lack accuracy and compromise worker safety.
Many US utilities have already installed sensors, smart meters, and other intelligent devices across their systems to measure and monitor a variety of events and conditions. Smart meters are becoming increasingly valuable for the data they provide, and with more than 60% penetration of customer sites, their value continues to increase.10 Utilities are also starting to deploy “sensing aerial solutions,” such as cameras mounted on drones, to inspect power lines, collect data on the condition of wires, poles, transmission towers, and other equipment, and to detect potential equipment failures.
However, one of the biggest challenges has been gathering data from multiple networked asset components and providing a single repository source to monitor and analyze the data. Utilities often lack the cloud capabilities required to derive actionable insights in real time from the growing web of connected assets and the data they generate. Another challenge that has slowed T&D digitalization in some areas compared with the generation segment is communications. While a stationary power plant has the capability to connect through mechanisms including fiber cable or Wi-Fi, far-flung T&D systems traversing rural areas may currently be beyond the reach of high-speed communications networks.
DIGITAL LEAP: In the near term, the T&D segment will likely focus further on the Integrate/Aggregate phase while also progressing into the Analyze and Visualize phases.
In the next 2–3 years, asset managers in the T&D segment will likely continue efforts to aggregate and standardize data from disparate systems into one repository source. This can help break down siloes, such as between operations, maintenance, and asset management, so operators can harvest insights by examining relationships among data sets to which they did not previously have access. Cloud storage and analytics solutions can generate actionable insights in real time and they compare favorably with on-premise solutions in terms of speed, scope, and depth of insights. Some regulated utilities have hesitated to adopt cloud solutions both for security reasons and because the expenditures have historically been treated as operating expenses rather than being included in capital assets, which can make it a challenge to earn a sufficient ROI. But that trend is starting to change and many utilities are deploying cloud solutions for scalability and flexibility.11 At the same time, a number of utilities have pursued private LTE/5G or fiber optics networks to upgrade communications latency and speed required by evolving IoT and data transmission needs.
As they access and analyze more data, the T&D segment will also likely focus on creating more complex dashboards and visualizations to provide situational awareness. More utilities may deploy geospatial systems that not only integrate locational data with data from multiple systems as in a conventional geographic information system (GIS); they also enable collaboration and sharing of data, such as asset conditions, weather, and customer complaints, through multiple devices. In addition, as utilities begin to solve the challenges of accessing, updating, and ensuring the accuracy of critical data across the network, they will likely increasingly develop digital twins.
The segment will almost certainly hone its drone capabilities further in the next few years, and many look forward to being able to fly drones beyond the visual line of site (BVLOS). In the longer term, those using advanced communications technologies such as 5G would be able to combine it with BVLOS, which could be a game changer for the segment. Paired with cloud capabilities, these technologies could enable real-time streaming video from remote drones, providing enhanced visibility for assessing equipment and damage status. The drones could quickly process data using AI, potentially identifying structural defects in T&D infrastructure in near real time. This could be especially valuable in the wake of disasters and outages to speed data transfer to work crews so that they can restore power faster.