A springer spaniel named Jac is helping Scottish utility SP Energy Networks to maintain its grid by sniffing out faults on the deeply buried grid before they manifest, saving engineers time and effort.
According to media reports, Jac can sniff oil and hydrocarbon gasses that are released by faulty oil-filled cables through both earth and tarmac, and when he does, he indicates he has discovered a fault by raising his front paw. So far, he has discovered faults on 30 occasions, which makes his success rate a neat 100 percent.
"Part of keeping the lights on in an electricity network involves investing in innovation and technology," Scott Mathieson, a planning and regulation executive at SPEN, told Sky News.
"We're used to using laser technology, flying the network with drones, but Jac adds to our armoury significantly. He is a sniffer dog and we've been piloting using Jac to help us detect cable faults in particular,” Mathieson said. With the dog’s help, engineers from SPEN can repair a faulty cable before it fails.
Employing a sniffing dog to help discover faults on 65,000 miles of power lines and 30,000 substations is certainly a novel idea that might need scaling up, given the success rate of Jac. Perhaps sniffing dogs could be helpful in detecting leaks on oil and gas pipelines, too.
Meanwhile, however, the oil industry is betting on robots. Just this month a Thai and a Norwegian firm showcased a robot that can repair subsea pipelines. According to the two companies, Nautilus can perform tasks in depths of up to 150 meters, which is deeper than a diver can go safely, and it can save as much as 40 percent on the costs of repair.
The robot operates by straddling a pipeline and moving along it until it detects a leak, which it then proceeds to wrap and seal.
Robots are also used in the industry to inspect pipelines from the inside. They employ lasers and a technology similar to ultrasound in order to check pipelines for signs of corrosion.
Technology is, of course, also heavily used by grid operators everywhere in order to make sure no fault goes unnoticed. Yet Jac’s employment suggests technology is not always the best solution to the problems of grid maintenance, especially in a situation with tight supply and the risk of outages looming over the UK.
“Our teams prepare for winter weather all year round and we’re working hard to be ‘storm ready’ for the months ahead,” SPEN’s Mathieson said. “It’s important we explore every avenue to either prevent the unplanned outages weather can bring or to make sure that, if they do occur, we can restore power to people’s homes and businesses as quickly and as safely as possible.”
Indeed, earlier this week, the National Grid, the largest power utility in the UK, issued its first blackout warning as it expected energy consumption to spike amid colder weather. Later the utility withdrew the alert saying its contingency plans were in place to deal with a potential outage.
"The notices are intended to be a signal that the risk of a System Stress Event in the GB electricity network is higher than under normal circumstances," the National Grid said.
The UK relies on gas and renewables, as well as some nuclear power, for its electricity generation, and it is also a big importer from France, which until recently could supply abundant nuclear energy. Now, however, EDF is struggling to repair several of its reactors and nuclear power output is much lower than usual, reducing its capacity to supply France’s neighbor with electricity when needed.
This highlights the so far unique role of Jac: at a time of such supply uncertainty, the proper operation of the grid and all parts of it becomes more important than ever.
By Charles Kennedy for Oilprice.com
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