Whether it’s concern prompted by blackouts in Manhattan, transmission lines sparking wildfires in California or international cyber threats to the power grid, it’s reasonable to wonder what your local utility is doing to protect you from such disruptions and dangers and what the future holds.
As PPL Electric Utilities keeps power flowing to our 1.4 million customers, we are actively monitoring and maintaining our system, replacing aging power lines and substations, building new ones, and incorporating advanced technology to keep your electric service safe and secure – today and into the future.
The power grid also has a big role to play in protecting our local environment and combatting global climate change. We’re working to make our system cleaner and greener. The future grid will serve as a network binding together solar, wind, energy storage and other resources to function in harmony, continuing to supply on-demand electricity – even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
The power grid has two main parts – distribution, akin to the roads serving your neighborhood – and transmission, linking regions the same way that highways connect communities. The wires, poles and trestles of transmission are the backbone of the electric grid, and the future will require the power system’s spine to be both strong and nimble.
As more of your power comes from wind, solar and other renewable resources, the transmission grid will serve an increasingly vital function – balancing the system across distant expanses and a wide variety of electric generating resources. In the evening or early morning, the system might deliver wind power from the mountains to the valley towns. Mid-day, when the sun is powering solar panels, the flow might be from the valley back up the mountain. The transmission system we’re building for the future will facilitate that flexibility.
Electricity has traditionally traveled in one direction – from generators to consumers. The future will see an increasingly dynamic flow as consumers get more of their power from solar panels, wind turbines or energy storage devices. That power will flow from the distribution system to the transmission system for a quick ride to wherever it’s needed.
Advanced technology will enable us to monitor and address the constantly changing conditions on the grid. We’re installing sensors and relays across the system to send back information in real-time. If you’ve noticed how many power interruptions are shorter than they used to be, that’s the grid using these sensors to isolate a problem and, if possible, fix itself. This allows us to isolate the broken part and re-route power so the fewest people are affected for the shortest amount of time.
To help reduce maintenance costs, we are harnessing the power of digital science and analytics to tell us when parts need replacement. We can now reliably tell from corrosion rates and other data when a piece of equipment might fail and then replace it beforehand, thus avoiding a power outage.
We’re using light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR) that maps individual trees along transmission rights-of-way. This helps us discover a tree that’s damaged or diseased before it falls across a power line. Our system also assesses tree growth rates, so we can more precisely deploy tree crews. Similarly, our data analytics on bird interactions with transmission lines is helping us enhance our avian management efforts, protecting birds and saving money.
As technology plays an increasing role in our business, we’re especially attentive to cyber threats and other potential dangers to the grid. While we don’t discuss details publicly, we plan and operate our system with the latest intelligence around cyber and physical intrusion and regularly evaluate our security by testing our system’s defenses.
The power system is a modern marvel that enables electricity to flow instantaneously (186,000 miles per second) to where it’s needed, precisely when you need it. As more and more aspects of our daily lives depend on electricity, it’s vital that we keep the electric system functioning effectively. We believe the key to this is a strong, smart transmission backbone connecting all the pieces.
Our electric grid is moving boldly into an exciting, new future offering low-carbon, reliable, affordable power for consumers. At PPL, we’re making the advances needed to build and sustain a bright future for Pennsylvania.
Dave Bonenberger is vice president, transmission and substations, for PPL Electric Utilities, based in Allentown.