What Does it Take to Keep America’s Power Flowing?

Published on 07/12/2021

As we mentioned in our June blog post, there have been a number of widespread and disruptive power outages across the nation nearly every year — events that our utilities actively try to prevent. Our American power grid, comprising the East coast grid, West coast grid, and the Texas grid, has been described as the biggest machine in the world. It provides more than $400 billion in electricity to customers every year using almost 7 million miles of transmission and distribution lines.

To keep this machine running at peak performance, utility companies actively work to ensure reliable electricity supplies are maintained, even in a crisis. In all, there are 7,700 power plants and 3,300 utilities employed in the production and transmission of power to residences and commercial buildings. And yet, utility companies can keep power flowing in most cases due to a complex process of inspections, corrections, and preventative activities.

How Power Companies Keep Power Flowing in Our Nation’s Grid
As our power grids continue to evolve amid increasing demand and changing weather patterns, utilities are coping with expanding needs by deploying several strategies designed to keep the grid system healthy — and powered up.

Inspection of Power Lines and Substations

To keep power flowing, utility personnel conduct routine inspections of both power lines and electrical substations. For substations, this includes inspection of physical access controls such as fencing, doors, and locks; monitoring systems such as alarms, security cameras and fire control and suppression equipment; digital security systems; and finally, safety signage.

For power lines, inspection includes examining infrastructure such as utility poles or the lines themselves for damage or weakness and ensuring all lines are clear of vegetation. Some strategies include:
  • Thermographic scanning for hotspots
  • Detection of punctured insulators using electric field measurement or voltage measurement
  • Resistance measurement of electric joint in live lines
  • Tower footing earth resistance measurements
Other techniques for EHV line maintenance as well as cold line maintenance activities are conducted via a variety of manual and digital technologies.

Maintenance of Power Lines and Substations
Preventative maintenance is performed on both power lines and substations on a regular basis. Such maintenance can include replacement of damaged or weakened infrastructure and vegetation clearing, but the advent of digital technologies has allowed this process to become more in-depth. Modern substations can automate manual processes and deploy advanced diagnostic systems to detect and diagnose weaknesses so they may be corrected faster and with less impact to utility budgets.

The Smart Grid
The smart grid is a new type of power grid based on digital technologies that is being developed over the next decade. The smart grid system allows power producers to connect with consumers with greater responsiveness, increasing reliability and reducing the potential for power outages. Smart meters on homes and businesses coupled with sensors placed along transmission lines monitor supply and demand while synchrophasors measure the real-time flow of power, allowing operators to prevent disruptions through heightened visibility.
As the smart grid evolves, smart appliances will be able to interact with the grid and shift their electricity use to low-demand times. When bad weather or other factors affect a broad section of the grid, microgrids that are decentralized will be coupled with battery technology to bring power to communities to keep customers supplied.

Emergency Storm Response
In a weather emergency, utilities enact an Emergency Storm Response process consisting of the following:
  • Assessing power plants for damage and restoring power
  • Repairing high-voltage transmission lines
  • Bringing substations online so power can reach the distribution system
  • Restoring power to emergency responders and mission-critical facilities
  • Repairing lines for large service areas
  • Repairing lines to individual homes and businesses
Because this is such a long and involved process, it can explain why it sometimes takes a while to get power restored (march link) in the event of an outage.

Actions That Minimize the Chance of Outages
Finally, utilities actively participate in vegetation management activities such as line clearance, mowing, mechanical trimming or herbicide application to keep hazardous trees and vegetation from impacting power lines. Strategic tree trimming and removal of vegetation from right-of-way areas can help ensure that power lines remain intact throughout adverse weather events.

Keeping America’s Power Bright
Utility companies are always focusing on what can be done in advance to prevent power outages and ensure American residents and businesses have power when they need it. Preventative maintenance of power lines and substations is critical, as is ensuring the areas surrounding utility equipment is clear of hazardous vegetation. Fortunately, today’s utilities are equipped with strong strategies and digital technologies that assist them in their mission to keep America’s power on.