How lockdown may accelerate innovation in grid maintenance

The impact of protracted lockdown is forcing US network and transmission businesses to think differently about how the maintain the grid. They are turning increasingly to using drones instead of helicopters and vehicles to conduct routine inspections of thousands of kilometres of power lines.

Drones are already being successfully deployed by oil and gas producers to inspect hard-to-reach parts of offshore oil rigs, wind turbines, oil tanks, chimney flues and oil pipelines.

Drones are being trialled by Victorian network businesses like CitiPower, Powercor and AusNet Services to identify where vegetation growth is impacting on power line safety. They have been trialling drones fitted with Light Detection and Ranging Equipment (LIDAR) to scan power lines. The use of drones has been accelerated by the need to manage networks in bushfire prone areas, but is expected to deliver operational cost savings too.

Victorian transmission and distribution business AusNet Services has been a proactive adopter of using new technologies to help it manage the safety of its networks. The importance of effective network maintenance and inspection cannot be understated. A 2009 Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires found that ageing network infrastructure contributed to three fires in February that year.

In 2014 and 2015 three class actions against SP Ausnet and others for alleged liabilities relating to the bushfires were settled for nearly $1 billion.

Ausnet Services has been an early adopter of the LIDAR system, deploying it to assist with inspections since 2015. LIDAR systems are now included as part of the capital expenditure budget for managing these regulated assets.

Other networks adopting drone-assisted inspection regimes include Essential Energy, Western Power and SA Power Networks.