‘Talking’ power line technology being tested

It’s prime TV time and the Husker football team is on. Suddenly, high winds blow a tree branch into a power line, putting customers on an entire distribution circuit in the dark when a breaker trips.

The current process, which can be lengthy, involves an OPPD employee being dispatched to the circuit, locating the problem and adjusting switches to isolate it. Customers not in the immediate area can have power again while workers clear the tree limb and repair any damage.

Seth Marek and Joe Brinkman, OPPD line technicians, mount equipment for testing.

Seth Marek and Joe Brinkman, OPPD line technicians, mount equipment for testing.

An OPPD team is now looking at how technology can be used to automate some of that process and minimize the time customers spend without power. Studying what some utilities call “self-healing” power line technology, the team believes power could be restored to most customers on the circuit within 90 seconds to two minutes, less time than it takes for a TV timeout in the football game.

Circuits in OPPD’s service territory range in size from several blocks to several miles and can include as many as 2,000 customers.

“The technology allows devices to ‘talk’ to a controller and it discovers where the fault is,” said Rick Stava, principal automation engineer. “The controller can automatically isolate the problem area, so other customers get their power back far faster than would happen currently.”

The “talkative” pieces of equipment would communicate which part of the circuit has the problem to OPPD’s Energy Control Center, reducing the area that needs to be patrolled and restoration.

To see how this technology can be used at OPPD, a 10-person cross-functional team led by David Whisinnand, supervisor, IT Network Services looked at 10 vendors. After screening and lab testing, it was narrowed down to two vendors who tested their equipment at OPPD’s Elkhorn Service Center in late August and early September.

“We wanted to see how they operated in nearly real-life conditions,” said Whisinnand. “We learned a lot.”

The team will take the data gathered during the four days of testing and decide which vendor will be used in the first phase of a pilot project involving a small section within the Omaha metro in 2016. Depending on the results, this type of distribution automation could be expanded into other areas of OPPD’s service territory.

“We know that a more reliable grid is very important to our customers, and this is technology that OPPD needs to learn about,” said Landy Jacobson, manager T&D projects.

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