Smart meters are great, limits remain: An outage further up the delivery chain for power means no information for them to consolidate and analyze.

It is now well known that the US power grid has reached its twilight years and requires massive capital investment to overhaul. Sensor technology is a less expensive option than replacement that can help extend the useful life of elderly equipment.

The average age of US transformers is 45 years even though most were only designed to last 40 years, “we are living on borrowed time,” Brett Sargent, LumaSense Technologies Vice President and General Manager of Products recently told AOL Energy.

Focusing “Smarts” Further Upstream

LumaSense manufactures predictive sensors that detect inefficiencies in energy intensive processes like power generation and delivery. The sensors monitor processes throughout electrical networks – from power plant boilers to substations and transformers – sending performance information to grid operators so trouble spots can be identified. These early warnings can help prevent blackouts.

“A lot can happen between power generation and the end point,” said Sargent, meters are great for telling the customer how much energy they use, but meters do little for reliability.

The company is using IT that has proven effective in the automotive and medical industries and is taking it to the energy industry. Specifically, LumaSense uses advanced transformer sensor technology that continuously monitors the levels and composition of gases that become dissolved within oil inside the equipment.

“When things go wrong, transformers give up gas into the oil, dissolved gas analysis (DGA) monitors what’s going on and diagnoses problems by analyzing this gas,” Sargent said. The technology is dubbed “smart” DGA because it continuously relays information to operators in real-time. Fewer than 5% of all power transformers worldwide have online or smart DGA.

Although online DGA has existed for over 30 years, LumaSense has been able to reduce the cost by 50% to 60%. A utility used to pay $20,000 to $50,000 per piece of equipment for smart DGA and those costs have now been reduced by half, enabling utilities to adopt the technology across more of their fleet, potentially monitoring three times as many transformers as they do now, according to Sargent.

How Does the Smart Grid Get Funded and Built?

With municipalities struggling from the housing, economic and financial crises, and privately-owned utilities beholden to shareholder value maximization on a quarterly basis, justifying and financing high up-front capital intensive smart grid investments like online DGA can be a challenge.

One important factor, in Sargent’s view, is for utilities to provide the customer with something tangible like a solid decrease in the number of outage days per year. He would be more willing to accept a rate increase if the utility could guarantee fewer outage days instead of installing a residential meter that monitors how much electricity or water he uses.

The failure rate of transformers will increase 1,500% over the next 10 years, Sargent contends. Utilities may not be able to afford to replace infrastructure on a massive scale, but they may be able to afford $10,000 on technology that could extend transformer life for another 5 years, he said.