Putting “Smarts” into an Aging Grid Infrastructure

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Smart meters do not equal a smart grid.

While industry and government cooperate to build out the “smart grid” for the future, we believe it is equally critical to address the ever growing energy consumption happening today by tightening up the energy delivery side to fully leverage existing assets.

Last year, LumaSense surveyed power industry professionals from around the world about their transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructures as they exist today and needs for the future. Here are a few facts to set the stage:

  • Power consumption continues to grow an average of 3-5% per year globally.
  • Up to 10% of power generated – worth about $25 billion – is lost annually in transmission.
  • The average transformer is 30-40 years old globally, which means many are now at the end of their life.

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This aging and inefficient infrastructure impacts everyone who uses electricity.

Transformers are one of the most critical assets in the electrical delivery system. They are prevalent and key hinge points in generation, transmission and distribution. Our survey suggests utilities are becoming more sophisticated at monitoring the performance of transformers, but wide-scale deployment of advanced monitoring technologies is very low.

Let’s look at one such type of advanced monitoring technology. Dissolved Gas Analysis (DGA) has long been used in industry and widely accepted as an excellent diagnostic tool for transformers and load tap changers (LTC’s). DGA looks at the gas concentrations in oil. From these levels, one can discern the health of a transformer or LTC and even diagnose issues related to them. I look at it like blood analysis. When you are young, you can go with blood analysis being performed once a year. As you get older, and more stressed, you need to have analysis done a few times a year. As you continue to age, the need for checkups and tests and blood analysis get more and more frequent. When you are very old, you may need to have continuous blood analysis done.

Among the key findings from the survey are:

  • DGA is widely accepted as the single most comprehensive tool for protecting and extending the lives of aging transformer fleets, but it’s mostly done manually just once or twice a year. And it takes one to two weeks to get results back from a lab. 65% of respondents said they sample transformer oil for traditional lab analysis one to two times a year.
  • Nearly 95% of respondents said online DGA monitoring is important, yet only 5% have deployed condition-based online DGA monitoring. That’s kind of like a person with dangerously high blood pressure refusing to fend off a heart attack by making healthy changes to their daily diet.
  • Most survey respondents indicated at least 75% of transformers in their fleets are not supported by online DGA monitoring. If you could monitor gas levels 24/7 with cost-effective online DGA technology, why wouldn’t you want to do that?
  • Utilities and transformer makers are increasingly transitioning to technology that measures more types of gases. Nearly 70% of respondents said they are driving toward measuring three to nine gases – as opposed to hydrogen only or a total combustible-gas (TCG) reading. Hydrogen and acetylene were selected as the two most important gases/readings when reviewing DGA results for transformer main tanks.

Obviously many things can go wrong in a year, and very quickly without much forewarning. With ever-increasing demands on our aging T&D infrastructure, it’s easy to see why online monitoring systems beat the traditional routine of semi-annual lab analysis. Yet, many continue to operate without an online DGA system. Our survey shows while most cite DGA as important, the usual economic factors of price along with on-site service and support, take priority over the technology when evaluating a system.

Price, cost, risk, reward. Where does the “tipping point” occur?

What prevents wide-scale deployment of DGA monitoring to the existing aged infrastructure? It is pretty simple…cost. The cost of the unit itself, the cost of the installation, the maintenance, the service of the unit. Cost matters. Cost is the barrier. Of course the technology used has to be sound and the results reliable, but nothing will start if the cost is too high.

The electrical supply chain of the world needs to wake up and realize that you can’t replace all of those old transformers overnight. They have to make them last. Not only would transformer manufacturers not be able to keep up, it would become cost prohibitive to buy all new transformers. Those old transformers that are getting older and older, more and more stressed will need online DGA monitoring. The oil is the blood of the transformer. We analyze blood to keep humans healthy. We need to analyze the transformer oil more and more frequently to keep the transformer going. We need online monitoring.

So if the cost constraint is removed from the equation, what reasons do you see for not using online DGA to increase the efficiency of our energy grid?

To Learn More About SmartDGA and Cost Effective On Line DGA Monitoring, click here.

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