EPRI gives Glimpse into Research

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

It’s no secret that the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is out to change the future of power. If EPRI’s trying to keep that a secret, the nonprofit isn’t doing a very good job of it. What they’re doing a great job with is collaboration: They’ve worked with a lot of utilities around the globe and developed a number of research and development (R&D) programs to untangle the problematic details of the power equation.

One of those programs, Technology Innovation (TI), looks to innovate for the long-term power future. In this arena, things are more of a slow build to a far-off final result. To get an overview of the program and details on how TI could change the final power game, POWERGRID International spoke with David Gandy, TI’s program manager.

PGI: What’s the history of the Technology Innovation Program? How did it get started?

Gandy: EPRI’s TI program was established by the EPRI board and utility members to perform early stage research which will support utilities in longer term—from five years to 20 years—science and technology research needs. It differs from EPRI’s Sector programs which are focused on nearer-term technologies and issues under five years. The TI program is intended to provide a pipeline of ideas and breakthroughs to support future research initiatives.

The TI program began in the late ’80s at the direction of utility advisors to provide a vehicle to continue to spur long range research opportunities. By the end of the ’80s, like many other industries, the electricity sector was becoming much more nearer-term focused.

Funding of the TI program provided an avenue to meet longer-term research objectives and to not lose sight of the future needs. Additionally, the TI program enabled EPRI and its management to focus on strategic issues that could become drivers for industry several years into the future.

PGI: What’s the typical timeline for research and development? Is there an estimate on how long it would take to get overall industry adoption for these new technologies/advances?

Gandy: R&D within the TI program normally is limited to three to five years. At that point, the technology is handed off to the Sectors, assuming the technology has moved to a measureable level of readiness. [Editor’s note: See lead art for EPRI readiness levels.]

At this point, a much deeper engagement occurs with our utility members to foster the technology along for early demonstration, then commercialization. Most technologies initiated from within the TI program can take seven to 10 years or longer to be fully adopted by the industry. Other technologies developed outside of the TI program can have a shorter route to diffusion.

PGI: Given all that research under your belt, what areas of distribution planning technology rise to the top?

Gandy: The evolving technology we are putting considerable emphasis on—both dollars and expertise—is the overhead line inspection via robotics. [Editor’s note: To see EPRI’s overhead robotics in action, visit the Utility Products Conference and Expo Jan. 24-26 in San Antonio. More information: http://utilityproductsexpo.com. EPRI is bringing three robots to the conference, including a line inspection robot.]

Additionally, you’ll notice that EPRI is not funding many projects in the energy storage area, which is, of course, a major component of demand response and distributed generation. The TI program has taken a scouting approach to energy storage, as many original equipment manufacturers and vendors are spending enormous dollars in this area. We are watching and monitoring the technologies, but a few hundred thousand from EPRI will not make that much difference here. So, sometimes, we take an observer or facilitator role in emerging technology areas.

PGI: Looking specifically at grid transformation materials within TI, tell me about EPRI’s work with nanotechnology-enabled insulators and cables. Will nanocoatings be the next way of high tech insulators? What are the next steps in this testing arena?

Gandy: Particulate fillers can be incorporated into polymer cable materials to form filled composite insulator materials with enhanced properties. We’ve known that for years, but recent research shows that electrical breakdown and voltage endurance can be significantly enhanced through the use of nanoscale fillers. When used as cable insulation, these nanofilled composite dielectrics can, theoretically, enable cables with smaller diameter to carry the same power as larger cables.

The next steps in this area will require the development of standard metrics. We need to be able to measure critical properties to meet performance requirements. Fundamentally, we’re in an early pre-prototype development stage and will not become commercial in less than five years.

PGI: Looking at TI’s sensors and operations work, what are the most promising options for cable and transformer applications?

Gandy: The robotic line inspection robot is obviously the most promising for overhead cable inspection. However, there are several other exciting technologies including:

  • Solid-state sensors for online measurement of dissolvable gases that monitor transformers in substations;
  • Sensors for measuring insulator leakage currents;
  • A device for measuring temperature, current, sag, and vibration along conductors;
  • A wireless data transmission & collection system; and,
  • Replacements for sulfur-hexafluoride—a big contributor to green-house gases—in circuit breakers.

 

PGI: These days, there’s an iPhone app for everything, but I admit surprise that there you’re developing an app for sensing and diagnostics. What’s the story behind that? How’s the development going, and how might that work in the field?

Gandy: The iPhone app has the potential to be used in a variety of areas across the power industry including:

  • Power quality monitoring,
  • Demand response management,
  • Locating arcing utility hardware,
  • Magnetic and electric field sensing,
  • Handheld multimeter applications,
  • Utility hardware asset condition and security monitoring,
  • Vibration and thermal noise measurements,
  • Vehicle charging station mapping,
  • Asset tracking and GPS locating,
  • Data acquisition/storage/transmittal, and
  • Training and portal of instructional documents to the field.

The idea for the app came from Norm McCollough, one of our project managers, who felt that our industry was not making full use of iPhone capabilities. Based on his persistence, the Technology Innovation program initiated a small project in 2009 to investigate how and where the technology might be used and to determine if it could be used to measure such things as contact voltage and power quality. The results of the exploratory effort were very encouraging. In 2010, we expanded the project to work on a few specific applications—acquiring, storing, and transmitting data from a solar panel and GPS asset mapping and tagging, specifically.

We are now just beginning exploration of potential demand response and distributed generation applications.

PGI: Are there any new areas within TI that may completely change distribution?

Gandy: We’ve actually already touched on two of the projects I’d point to. First, the replacements for sulfur-hexafluoride in circuit breakers—to help curb those greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the nanotechnology insulators and cables, which could help smaller cables carry bigger loads. The last area is one that has just recently garnered a great deal of attention—hardening of the distribution system. Due to various weather events (ice storms, hurricanes, tornados, etc.), industry is looking at new ways to harden their distribution systems. EPRI will obviously be right in the middle of this one.

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