“Worms and radar and drones, OH MY!” Innovative solutions to modernize the US power grid

24 April 2024Digital Transformation, Electrical, Infrastructureaccuracy, AI, drone, efficiency, Electrical, energy, Infrastructure, innovation, machine learning, resilience, risk mitigation

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In the pursuit of fortifying the nation’s power infrastructure, innovative approaches are emerging to revolutionize the aging US power grid. Among these initiatives, a promising avenue is the endeavor to bury power infrastructure underground. This strategic move could not only bolster resilience but also usher in a new era of modernization for the nation’s electricity network.

The impetus behind this drive is clear: the susceptibility of above-ground power lines to weather-related disruptions, which lead to frequent outages and, in some cases, catastrophic wildfires. By migrating power lines underground, the potential for service interruptions during storms can be significantly diminished, while simultaneously mitigating the risk of sparking wildfires—a crucial step in safeguarding both lives and property.

downed pole and electric lines on roadway bounded by green trees and shrubs, electric power grid

However, the transition to subterranean power infrastructure comes with its own set of challenges, chief among them being the substantial costs involved. Traditionally, the expenses associated with burying power lines underground have been prohibitive, ranging from $2- to $6-million per mile—a staggering sum that has deterred widespread adoption of this approach. Yet, in the face of these financial hurdles, innovative projects are forging ahead, spurred on by grant programs, private businesses, universities, and national labs. Buoyed by groundbreaking technologies and novel methodologies, projects are aimed at surmounting the obstacles.

Spanning across a number of states including Arizona, New York, Ohio, Virginia, Idaho, and California, these initiatives represent a collaborative effort among public and private enterprises, backed by funding from the US Department of Energy (DOE). Among the myriad innovations being explored, several stand out as potential game-changers in the quest to modernize the power grid:

purple, yellow and black conduit in a ditch holding electric power grid lines

Worm-Inspired Digging Technologies

Worm-Inspired Digging Technologies: Drawing inspiration from nature, these cutting-edge digging approaches, such as the SPEEDWORM, promise to revolutionize the excavation process. Capable of installing 1,000 feet of underground conduit and cable in a mere two hours, these robotic tunneling tools offer unparalleled speed and efficiency.


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AI and Aerial Drone Solutions

Leveraging the power of artificial intelligence and aerial drones, these solutions employ augmented reality and digital twin technology to navigate subsurface obstacles with precision, enhancing the safety and accuracy of underground installations.

Ground Penetrating Radar

Providing invaluable insights into subsurface conditions, ground-penetrating radar plays a crucial role in mapping out optimal routes for underground power distribution lines, minimizing disruptions and maximizing efficiency.

Advanced Power Cable Deployment and Splicing

Equipped with laser cutting and machine learning-driven vision systems, these state-of-the-art machines streamline the deployment and splicing of power cables, ensuring seamless connectivity and reliability.

wooden spool holding electric wire, electric towers at sunset in background, electric power grid

Water Jet Underground Digging Tools

Offering a gentler alternative to traditional drill bits, water jet digging tools minimize damage to surrounding infrastructure while expediting the excavation process—a boon for cost-conscious projects.

Real-Time Guidance with Machine Learning

By harnessing the power of machine learning and quantum radio frequency, these innovative solutions provide real-time guidance for drilling operations, optimizing efficiency and accuracy on the field.

 

The DOE describes the US electric grid as encompassing over 5.5 million line-miles and comprising more than 180 million power poles. Therefore, it’s becoming more imperative than ever to modernize and fortify this critical infrastructure. Weather-related events – from ice storms and localized wind events to flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes – are responsible for the majority of power outages each year and underscore the urgency of adopting resilient solutions.

By embracing these innovative technologies, not only can the cost of burying power lines underground be reduced, but the speed and safety of the undertaking can also be significantly enhanced. With resilience as the cornerstone of these efforts, the journey towards a modernized and robust US power grid is well underway—a testament to human ingenuity and collective determination in the face of adversity.


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