Providing uninterrupted power to customers is a top priority for utilities. Maintaining and upgrading robust secondary network systems can help achieve that. Although designing and constructing such networks comes at a price, the benefit of premium power — combined with savings on maintenance costs and fewer outages — delivers value in the long run.

A secondary network, also called a low-voltage network, is a complex grid designed with parallel sources of power to each customer. Secondary network systems are a crucial part of the electrical infrastructure, delivering high levels of reliability and serving most dense urban centers across North America.

Customers connected to these networks should rarely experience interruptions in power. Benefits for utilities and their customers include:

  • Better power quality and reliability, thanks to intentional redundancies built-in.
  • Better control and operational capabilities.
  • Improved response capacity for issues such as outages and equipment failure.

Challenges to Operations and Maintenance

Although much overhead electrical network infrastructure in the United States has been replaced over time, underground systems — in particular, secondary networks — present an array of challenges. Some elements are more than 50 years old, and replacing these assets can be an expensive and complicated endeavor.

Compounding that challenge is utilities’ ongoing loss of experienced technical and craft personnel. The industry has suffered significant losses in experience relating specifically to secondary network systems. This has happened through a combination of mergers and attrition, leaving utilities with knowledge gaps in proper planning, designing, engineering, construction, operations and maintenance.

Given the pressing and continual need to maintain and upgrade secondary networks to meet the increasing demands of a growing society, utilities should focus on their long-term vision and how it aligns with customer expectations.

Optimizing Performance Through Independent Evaluations

A wealth of methods, tools and technologies to improve existing secondary networks can give organizations an edge in satisfying current and projected demand. Evaluation and risk assessment of an existing secondary network system encompasses a meticulous, specialized review and benchmarking, delivering an immediate tactical action plan and strategic guidance to lower the network’s risk profile and improve overall management. This assessment can involve on-site workshops, interviews, field inspections and analysis of the key functional areas of safety, planning, design, engineering, construction, operations and maintenance.

Given aging grid infrastructure and institutional knowledge gaps, some utilities have turned to specialized management and technical consulting services to cope with the challenges of maintaining secondary networks. The premise is that secondary network owners and operators benefit from the rigors of a specialized assessment conducted by an unbiased third party, whose deep knowledge and experience provides a fresh perspective. The third party might conduct fact-finding, asset condition assessment, evaluation and benchmarking of practices and processes relative to secondary network systems.

The outcome should be a positive intervention that yields immediate improvements for managing secondary networks. This approach delivers data-driven results in the form of technical transfer sessions and reports. It enables owners to move forward with the confidence that comes from appropriate analytical accuracy and due diligence.

Customer experience and expectations are a top priority for utilities. Investing in secondary network software and hardware that integrates throughout the distribution network promises to reduce long-term operational costs and deliver on those expectations.

 

Learn how an independent assessment and benchmarking can yield immediate improvements to managing secondary networks.

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Matthew Olearczyk is a senior project manager who specializes in the utility sector at 1898 & Co., a business, technology and security solutions consultancy, part of Burns & McDonnell. He has more than 30 years of experience and a deep knowledge of electric utility distribution systems: advanced planning, construction, operations, emergency restoration, safety and the integration of distributed energy resources. He specializes in utility urban secondary network systems.