by Kevin Mays, IUS Technologies
Utilities across the nation face a paradox: New technology is ushering in a work force of eager, intelligent young employees who are willing and able to improve power distribution efficiency.
The new hires are overlooking legacy infrastructure such as transformers that must be properly maintained, however, as experienced technicians and engineers retire.
This puts utilities in a precarious situation. Younger employees are more likely to understand and embrace smart grid technology that will define the future of energy distribution, but that transition will not and cannot occur overnight. As distribution automation becomes real, a long period of co-existing old and new technologies will occur. Utilities that allow the exuberance of a new world order to come at the expense of realistic current grid needs risk distribution reliability deficiencies.
A Retiring Industry
Utility workers largely buck the trend of job and career churn. Many industries have encountered large employee turnover, but it’s common to encounter workers with 40 years of experience or more at the same utility.
When these workers retire, they take experience and knowledge with them. The longer a worker has worked at a single utility, the more knowledge he or she takes out the door, and it is less likely that he or she has transferred that knowledge to other employees.
The minds of these retiring employees often are the only repositories of vital grid information. The new, younger employees can learn general knowledge from various sources, but specific information about individual grids and installations can be shared only by the people who possess that knowledge. This is common in the utility industry, especially given the long time frames that predate robust documentation and record keeping.
To understand the complexity and ubiquity of these situations, remember the field technician that has covered a specific territory for 30-plus years. During his career, this technician might have addressed tens of thousands of service calls and conducted physical work on countless distribution lines. Field technicians often rely on their own expertise to solve problems, so they implement solutions that never get documented and might fall out of specifications.
This approach creates a patchwork of undocumented rewiring and unspecified connections that is difficult for newcomers to decipher. The solutions might have served their purposes well and the reasoning behind each job probably is sound, but there likely is an expansive knowledge gap between the technician who has spent decades making changes to infrastructure as he saw fit and a new employee who has only textbook knowledge.
Melding Minds With Technology
Wise utilities are directing experienced technicians to document as much of their previous work as possible, but it’s unreasonable to expect every modification will exist in a permanent record. In most instances, too many changes have been made over too long a period for that to happen. Knowledge of the past is only the first aspect of the intelligence transfer that must occur between tenured workers with practical experience and novice employees with technological know-how.
Remote line monitors and intelligence provided by centralized supervisory control and data acquisition systems are making it easier for engineers and grid architects to make informed decisions about distribution modifications, but the rollout of new technology requires a strong combination of intelligence from both sides, especially when it involves retrofitting old infrastructure. Much of the equipment on power grids has a life expectancy of 30 years or more, so it makes little sense to discard this expensive infrastructure prematurely.
One such element of energy distribution is the transformer. Not only are transformer installations numerous, but the performance and operation data that can be gleaned from them about grid health is valuable for reliability and efficiency. This intelligence makes transformer monitoring integral to smart grid distribution automation.
Transformer monitoring is an example of the crossroads of experience and technological expertise because of the synergies between aspects that affect the information they provide and what can be done with it. Knowledge of wiring and loads along the grid is vital to understanding what baseline measurements should look like. Comprehensive understanding of any modifications that affect transformers is necessary to making sense of what data they provide.
Modern monitoring equipment can provide real-time information about transformers in use, including voltage, current, power factor, phase, temperature and insulation oil health. Reading values that are considered normal vary depending on installations, and the difference between what is deemed abnormal and dangerous is of paramount importance. Determining that difference can come down to knowing what physical conditions led to the values the transformer monitor is reporting, which could be affected by field modifications understood by experienced technicians.
Legacy knowledge is required for perspective on transformer readings, but complete understanding of the distribution system—something new engineers are more likely to have—often directs what actions should or should not be taken based on grid intelligence. Big picture decisions such as proper asset management, voltage and load optimization and work force efficiency likely are made by savvy engineers and grid architects with advanced understanding of monitoring data. That information is put into perspective by experienced workers’ legacy knowledge.
As experienced employees exit the utility work force, their knowledge must be tapped to ensure a smooth transition to smarter grids. The most successful transitions will be seen by utilities that facilitate knowledge transfer and generational cooperation among employees to minimize the gap between experience and expertise, taking full advantage of both.
Kevin Mays is a product/application engineer at IUS Technologies. He has more than 20 years of engineering design, product development and technical sales experience. He has a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Northeastern University.
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