Whether the grid is expanding or aging, keeping people safe is the most important part of utilities’ business — be it their employees, customers, or the public. But after a certain level, the cost increases to achieve full control of risk become exponential. Using digital technology now allows utilities to push back that level by enabling them to break down silos and integrate millions of data points to drive greater visibility and ultimately better decisions in order to provide safer operations.
Digital technology is now being integrated into every aspect of utilities. Along with improving safety, it’s boosting security, guaranteeing interoperability, lowering costs, streamlining operations, and saving utilities and their customers money.
Take two essential components of smart grid technology: sensors and analytics.
Sensors are becoming smart (i.e. self-powered, wirelessly connected, and with some local computing power) and can be embedded throughout the entire electric chain, from turbines, through switchgear, to smart meters. They monitor the system and supply data, which can be converted into real-time information on its performance and asset health using analytics.
Look at some of the benefits of analytics from a safety standpoint. Utilities can use them to identify and analyze patterns of events that lead to accidents, making incidents easier to prevent, detect, and resolve. In addition, analytics can distill the mountain of data being produced by sensors into more accurate, easily understandable, actionable information. These real-time insights can assist operators in decision making and reduce human error. For example, by correlating data from vibrations, temperature and voltage, algorithms can inform operators of a deviation toward a dangerous operating zone before any unnoticed defect leads to a possible catastrophic equipment failure such as a transformer fire or a turbine blowing up.
New and smarter tools and training are another way to reduce human error. Situational awareness systems decrease incidents of operator error by presenting relevant data in a form that allows operators to make faster, more informed decisions. In addition, technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality applications are improving safety by providing visual, easy-to-understand directions that can guide operators and field crews through tasks step-by-step, including displaying energized parts in the equipment.
Simulator-based training, which is already being utilized in some areas of utilities, is continuing to evolve and grow in sophistication and scope, particularly with the leaps in virtual reality technology. Virtual reality training, currently in use in some industries, uses a computer-generated 3D environment where employees can test and train within a realistic, controlled setting. For example, operators can learn to use complex equipment, practice safety procedures, familiarize themselves with the layout of a plant, or even simulate dangerous situations (without the consequences of failure), so they can react quickly in a real-life situation. In virtual reality, you can touch live parts such as bus bars without a fatal electric shock.
Intelligent equipment and remote operations allow for better monitoring and safer activities. For instance, smart technology can track energy usage and identify usage spikes that could indicate a public safety hazard. In other settings, networks of sensors allow utilities to quickly detect abnormal situations and will start containment measures immediately. Operators can be protected using technology that allows them to work from a remote location. This can help mitigate arc flash hazards or let them operate a crane moving heavy equipment from a safe distance. However seasoned the technician is, he will be more confident in performing any intervention on live equipment from a safe distance.
These safety-benefitting technological changes are just the beginning. Technology is opening a world of possibilities for safety improvements. There is no turning the tide, so utilities must adjust and adapt to the changing digital landscape.