Powering Through: Utilities Prioritize Security, Innovation, and Collaboration During Critical Substation Upgrades

Spurred by the need to modernize and adapt, utilities are undergoing the same type of widespread digital transformation that other legacy industries have endured, except the power grid presents distinct challenges that add layers of complexity, pressure, and urgency.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently issued a report warning that to maintain a reliable electricity supply and meet global climate goals, governments and utilities need to add or replace the equivalent of virtually all the world’s power grids by 2040 … and time is running out.


At the most basic level, utilities seek improved functionality, which typically means upgrading their outdated infrastructure to provide better reliability and stronger resilience. A big job, made bigger when you zoom out to consider the scale of the work. There are more than 3,000 electric utilities across the country that are responsible for operating more than 75,000 substations—critical hubs that power our grid. Many of these unmanned substations are in remote areas, sometimes two to three hours away from where the closest maintenance crew is located. And to make matters worse, these substations are under constant attack.

Numerous Threats

The list of threats to a substation is almost comical in its variety, and has recently included events such as copper thefts (accelerating across the country from North Carolina to Utah as copper value skyrockets); vandalism (in the first few months of 2023, at least nine substations were attacked by gunfire in North CarolinaWashington state and Oregon); extreme weather (in 2022, 18 natural disasters caused more than $1 billion in grid damage, up from only three events in 1980); and terrorism/cyberattacks (a Department of Homeland Security bulletin warned that violent domestic extremists aspire to disrupt electrical systems as “a means to create chaos”).

Given the extent of these threats, many outside the utility industry are flabbergasted to learn that the majority of our nation’s substations are protected with little more than a chain link fence. One may ask why aren’t we encasing this equipment in reinforced concrete. Why aren’t there armed security patrols? The reality is that erecting ballistic walls or posting guards may not make financial sense for all substations. Walls alone can cost $1-2 million per substation, and fencing actually does a more efficient job of cooling the high-heat environments created by transformers.

For now, industry experts feel our best defense against ongoing substation threats is twofold: (1) increase robust surveillance solutions, and (2) explore alternative energy conduits. Here are some reasons why these actions are critical, and some ways to help convince others in the industry to take action:

Increase Robust Surveillance Solutions: The challenge of upgrading substation infrastructure is overwhelming, mostly because there are so many variables and crews can’t be everywhere at once. Many utilities have decided that their best overall option is early threat detection—meaning, accepting that the substations will be attacked in some way (regardless of preventative measures), and resolving to respond faster and more efficiently.

According to T&D World, the best method for ensuring reliability and preventing outages requires “real-time monitoring” powered by advanced surveillance technologies. By implementing a “touchless approach” using thermal and visual sensors to supplement human inspection, “utilities can continuously monitor the condition of their facilities and manage their assets more effectively, all before arriving at the site.” This type of remote management and control infrastructure helps utilities optimize resource allocation and reduce operational/maintenance costs, all while dramatically improving accuracy.

While the use of remote surveillance has been growing for years, exciting new advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are taking the industry even further—equipping utilities with smart tools to assess things like line health, vegetation encroachment, and even historical weather/fire patterns. This analysis took months and involved dozens of linemen and engineers manually reviewing, processing, and mapping hundreds of thousands of images of power lines and towers. Now, thanks to AI, that sort of analysis happens nearly in real-time, with alerts being sent directly from the site itself as security incidents occur, and the tech can even predict where there will likely be component anomalies and high-risk areas in the future. That type of situational awareness is critical for substations because each one is unique and requires its own unique threat assessment. By inputting as much data as possible, utilities can model limitless potential scenarios, allowing them to better control the narrative when the “unexpected” happens.

How to Start the Conversation: Link overarching objectives to show how this new surveillance/AI technology will improve: (1) utility capabilities; (2) operational costs/repairs; and (3) customer service. By highlighting the mutual advantages to be had across departments, it will be easier to prove immediate and long-term benefits.

Explore Alternative Energy Conduits: Given the ongoing epidemic of copper thefts and the huge movement towards renewable energy, digital substations have been a popular topic among utility companies for the past five years. In simple terms, digital substations insert digital technology into the heart of the substation, converting analog data into digital data. Digitalization provides a secure and dependable method of transmitting substation data, as well as reduced operating/upkeep costs.

It makes sense – if you’re going to update the substation infrastructure anyway, why wouldn’t you upgrade from copper to fiber optic equipment that improves the bidirectional flow of information? Manufacturers like GE, Hitachi Energy, Siemens Energy, and others have all been heavily involved with developing digital substation technology, focusing on how to make substations the most resilient with the least amount of maintenance.

This is still a rapidly evolving area, but the upsides could be huge. Among leading utility providers who have adopted similar digital transformations, McKinsey found there to be: a 25-30% field productivity improvement from AI-powered scheduling; up to an 80% capital reallocation based on machine learning (ML) insights in asset health; and more than a 30% improvement in customer satisfaction.

Support From the DOE: The Dept. of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability issued a four-volume report (2016-2020) to help “develop a practical construct for moving through a grid modernization planning process in a holistic, yet methodical, manner” – described as a next-generation distribution system platform (DSPx). (Volume IV is especially useful and includes myriad examples, lessons, and anecdotes from utilities across the country.)

The Need for Ongoing Collaboration and Investment: In October 2023, the Biden administration announced it had earmarked $3.46 billion to upgrade the country’s electric grid. That money, funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will go to 58 different projects across 44 states. It’s the largest investment in the grid to date, and its success will depend on utility companies, technology providers, and law enforcement agencies all working together—groups that haven’t been overly collaborative in the past. Time will tell if competitors can round their edges and eschew corporate secrecy by more openly sharing information on how to make our grid more resilient. But time is running out. Without a widespread effort to update, modernize, and protect our grid, we won’t have the power to do anything.

Kaitlyn Albertoli is the founder of Buzz Solutions, an AI company that provides asset fault detection and predictive analytics for powerline inspections, providing critical savings in preventing downed lines, power outages, and sparked wildfires due to failed grid infrastructure.

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