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​Lightning in a Lab

​(Show intro with mix of layered music, SFX and people talking)

(Music plays in background)

Sarah Smith: Hi, this is Sarah Smith of BPA, and welcome to Energy Pulse Northwest, edition 2.

David Wilson: I’m David Wilson. Yes, this is number 2 of our podcasts where we look at all things energy and utility related throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Smith: People, issues, technology – all of that stuff going on around the beautiful region.

Wilson: This week, Kevin Wingert, who is a BPA media spokesperson, takes us to the high voltage lab at the Ross Complex.

Smith: Which is a very cool place with lots of expensive and intricate, one-of-a-kind equipment gets tested before it gets put on the four-state, high voltage transmission system that keeps your lights on.

Wilson: Let’s take it away, Kevin. Here we go to the high voltage lab in BPA’s Ross Complex.

(Intro audio from various news clips: “…testing out just how much power power lines, transformers and insulators can take… This lab can pump up more than a million volts…”)

Kevin Wingert: Welcome to Energy Pulse Northwest, my name is Kevin Wingert. I’m here today at the High Voltage Lab at the Ross Complex in Vancouver, Wash., talking with Jeff Hildreth and Kellie Robinson. Say hi guys, don’t be shy.

Jeff Hildreth: So hi, I’m Jeff Hildreth. I’m the high voltage test engineer here.

Kellie Robinson: Hi, I’m Kellie Robinson, and I’m in the Labs and Field Services Group.

Wingert: Appreciate you guys sitting down and talking with us today. So, to kind of kick things off, what exactly does the High Voltage Lab do?

Hildreth: So, there’s a couple of roles that the High Voltage Lab plays. First of all, we help to make sure that our crews are safe by testing tools and techniques here in the lab before we ask them to use those tools and techniques in the field. We also make sure that BPA is buying the best materials that we can possibly buy. Most of the materials that we buy are engineered materials, and so they have a specification. And so we make sure those materials meet the specification. A couple of the smaller things we do, we do some research and development for the Technology and Innovation Group. We also do some testing for outside organizations. We have a very specialized facility here – there aren’t very many of them in the world. And sometimes, it’s in our best interests to do testing for outside groups.

Wingert: So when you mention some of the testing we do for engineered materials, can you give some examples of what we’re talking about?

Hildreth: Sure. Actually, one great example was during the spacer damper replacement project, which many people probably recall from a few years ago, we bought a lot of these spacer dampers to go on our system. And one very alert lineman noticed when he received the spacer dampers that it didn’t look like the drawing. He contacted technical services, and technical services said, “Yeah, that sure doesn’t look like the drawing.” It turns out that the manufacturer had changed the design without letting us know. So, then, we had lots of these materials that we’d already purchased – many of them already installed on the power system – and the question became then, “Are they okay? Or, are they not okay? Do we need to go back and re-replace all these? Can we install the ones on hand, or do we have to send them back and get new ones?” So we tested them here in the lab and, unfortunately, we found that the spacer dampers we received did not meet our specifications.

Wingert: So, when you tested them, what exactly were you testing them for and how did they kind of fail to meet our standards?

Hildreth: Well, in this case, we were testing them for their corona performance. So, corona is an undesirable side effect that happens with high voltage. The primary side effect that we’re worried about is the audible noise that it produces because it can be very annoying to the neighbors of power lines if they’re making loud, buzzing sounds all the time. So, in this case, these spacer dampers did not meet our corona spec – that they would continuously be making audible noise, they would be wasting power, they would be interfering with people’s radio and TV reception. So, for all those reasons, we couldn’t install the ones we’d received and had to send those back and get new ones.

Wingert: Kellie, talk to me a little bit about how we integrate with the field and some of the work that’s done directly in support of field services.

Robinson: I’ll answer that question in a second, but you – we – got to ask Jeff about systems testing, ‘cause that’s pretty awesome.

Wingert: You want to take the lead and fire off the first question?

Robinson: Okay, Jeff – tell us about the stage system testing—

Hildreth: You tell us what stage system testing—

Robinson: I’ve never been on one, but I do know that Jeff and a bunch of people will go out there. They’ve got these big, huge – you know – trailers all set up with all kinds of electronic equipment to monitor voltages and currents. They’ll actually purposefully fault the system, put a fault on the system.

Wingert: Explain to me what it means when you say, “fault the system”.

Robinson: So they have like this GOFI, this gas operated fault initiator, that’s an acronym. So, what they’ll do is fire it through a ring that they’ve installed. Of course, they do that when the bus is de-energized. It’s got a little tail on it.

Hildreth: It’s like a little dart that we launch with a compressed air launcher, and it carries a wire up with it. That wire bridges between the energized bus work and the ground. It’s sort of like what would happen if a tree fell into a line or if lightning strikes a line, you get that flash over fault that occurs. It creates a short circuit on the power system that is hard on equipment. But there are lots of very sophisticated things on the power system to deal with that situation because it does happen. So, when that fault happens, there’s relays that detect it. There’s circuit breakers that open up and clear the fault. And, the dispatchers that have to figure out how to get power restored.

Wingert: When we’re talking about testing, you’re not exactly gentle on this equipment.

Hildreth: True. Right? If we were to just test equipment to its day-to-day rating, it probably wouldn’t perform with the reliability that we expect out of the power system. I don’t know if everybody appreciates how reliable power is, but I can tell you that in the 14 years that I’ve lived in my house, I’ve had one power outage. That’s pretty amazing. Fourteen years, one power outage. So, we in the United States have come to expect reliable power. One of the ways to do that is to make sure that all the equipment we use is tested to the most rigorous standards, so that when those unusual things happen – the wind storm, the ice storm, the wildlife interaction with the power system, the plane crashing into a power line – all these things are unusual, but they happen. So, we want to make sure that when we test things, we test them to the most rigorous standards, so that we get that reliability that we expect. 

Wingert: So is it fair to say that you go into a test looking for how to make something fail and then maybe make it better?

Hildreth: Absolutely. It’s sort of like the engineers that crash test cars to make sure that the car is safe. Sometimes you’ve got to crash a car to do that, but you do that in a controlled way. And you do it deliberately and carefully measure everything that happens so that you can improve things and make it better next time.

Wingert: Kellie, talk to me a little bit about what we do with field services and how that kind of ties into the labs.

Robinson: So, the field services group, we support the field. Basically, we’re technical services for the field in terms of diagnostic testing. They don’t do it frequently enough. They have, sometimes, questions when they’re testing, and so that’s what my group – the field services group – we actually support them if they have a question on how to perform a particular diagnostic test on a transformer.

Wingert: So when we’re talking about diagnostic testing, what exactly are we trying to accomplish?

Robinson: So, mainly, the most common test that they perform on a transformer that we assist with is insulation testing. We want to make sure the transformer insulation is in good condition, and if it’s not, then there are certain things that they can do to maintain them. So, we’re there to support them if they have a question in interpreting the data, or in some cases, they actually need assistance in the field. Our group will come in and help them fill in those gaps. Because if you don’t do anything for a long time, you forget how to do it, and that’s what we’re there for.

Wingert: Any interesting test that comes to mind or an experience that was unlike any other that you’ve seen?

Robinson: There’s nothing like the high voltage lab testing, that’s for sure. The diagnostic testing that we do is kind of boring, which is a good day, when things are boring.

Hildreth: But the transformer testing is extremely important, right? Why is it important?

Robinson: Yeah. So, we’re talking about the insulation, why you want to measure the insulation. It goes back to the whole reliability thing that Jeff was talking about. We need to make sure that our equipment is in good condition and good health; otherwise, you’re going to lose that reliability. If you lose a transformer, the lead time for a new one is 18 months and $3 million. There’s no way you can just go in and replace one if it fails. There are some smaller utilities that will run to failure but that’s really not an option for us. We have a preventive maintenance program where we check our transformers every seven years. We do oil testing – it’s kind of like a blood test for a person – which is our chemistry lab, we don’t actually have those guys in here today but maybe a future podcast episode, you could ask them?

Wingert: Sounds like a great idea.

Robinson: All of those things we use to determine the health of the transformer.

Wingert: What does that really mean for the transformer? What’s going to happen to a transformer if you’re insulation is failing?

Robinson: You could end up with some partial discharge inside the transformer or some arcing of the transformer and end up with a big failure like we’ve seen on some of our reactors. You probably remember that one, was it out in Hillsboro with the big fire and smoke and everything? And it made the news. So, that’s something we’re trying to avoid. The way to avoid it is to have a good preventive maintenance program, and we do.

Wingert: Very cool. Now I seem to remember talking to you, Jeff, about scheduling and you said something about the crews going out to a substation to help clean the substation? What’s that all about?

Hildreth: Well, so, I’ll give you an example where we worked with the crews to determine whether cleaning was necessary and whether it would be effective. One of those was a crew in the coastal area that brought me a set of insulators. These are the things that lines are suspended from. They hold up the line, and they keep the voltage on the power line and off of everything else, so they have a really important job. So, they brought me these insulators, and they were completely covered in moss. They almost looked like a living thing. The question was should we be worried about this? Does the moss hurt anything? Is it going to reduce our reliability? So we did some tests and found that as long as the insulators were dry, the moss didn’t seem to have any effect on their electrical performance. But as soon as they got wet, that reduced their electrical performance to the point where we worried that they would not have that reliability that we’re looking for. So, then the question was should we replace all these with brand new insulators or is there something we can do to fix these? We experimented with some cleaning techniques, and we found that you could clean the moss off and continue to use those insulators. So, that’s what they did. 

Wingert: You talk a little bit about experimenting with cleaning, what exactly did that look like?

(Oxyclean commercial audio: “Watch how Oxyclean unleashes the power of oxygen…”)

Wingert: How exactly did you guys clean?

Hildreth: Well, in that case, I think we used, we found a solution…

(Oxyclean commercial audio: “It’s amazing!”)

Hildreth: … that would do the cleaning without damaging the insulator. We did some testing after we cleaned it to verify that the original electrical performance of the insulator was restored. So, then we were able to provide instructions to the crew on how to do that.

Wingert: So, are we talking buckets and mops or sponges or scrub brushes – all of that?

Hildreth: Sure. Exactly. Of course, in this case, we had to do it while it was de-energized. We’ve experimented with cleaning insulators while energized. In fact, we just did one in the lab here a few weeks ago, where a company, they make a gun that shoots pellets of dry ice. If you can imagine just little, tiny pellets of dry ice at an energized insulator. Dry ice is just really carbon dioxide. So this stream of pellets of carbon dioxide doesn’t conduct electricity, yet it knocks off the bad stuff without damaging the insulators. Then the pellets of dry ice evaporate and turn back into carbon dioxide. It’s kind of a novel way to clean the insulators.

(Sound of electrical spark)

Robinson: I’ve been learning some Swedish because I got to go to Sweden for transformer factory testing.

Hildreth: That must have been pretty neat. I mean, those are some of the biggest transformers ever made.

Robinson: Yeah, yeah, we didn’t talk about the Celilo upgrade at all.

Wingert: So, then, let’s go ahead and chat about that. I wasn’t aware of–

Robinson: That’s because I didn’t tell you—

Wingert: So, you’re going to tell me now because we recently went through a major upgrade at the Celilo Converter Station. That included onboarding a number of very large transformers. What did we do testing-wise for those transformers?

Robinson: There were so many transformers. There were seven of them. Six of them that are in service and one as a spare. That’s a lot of transformers to go witness testing on. We have a group that they’ll go and do testing on every transformer and reactor that we purchase to make sure that they’re meeting the purchasing specifications.

Wingert: So what were some of the tests that were run that you were witnessing?

Robinson: They do every single test that you can possibly think of. They’ll do the insulation testing and all that stuff that I mentioned. There’s a lot of other testing that my group can do and they did some of those as well. They’ll do tests to make sure that the windings meet their specifications. When we do them in the field, we compare to the test results that they got to make sure that the windings haven’t been deformed or moved or anything like that. They also did some other really interesting tests. They’ll actually do impulse tests, kind of like the lightning tests that Jeff does – you know, the Thor, thunder god testing – to make sure that the transformers meet certain specifications. Because, there are transients and things on the system that they can damage your equipment if they can’t withstand them.

(Music snippet from Bing Crosby “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”)

Wingert: I’m sorry, you said “transients” on the system?

Robinson: No, not those people you see in downtown Vancouver, you know.

Wingert: I was just wondering.

Robinson: Sorry, that’s just a term – how do you describe it?

Hildreth: A surge. A transient over voltage or a surge.

Robinson: Like a big spike or something like that. So, anyway, if you have that in your system, it will flash over, and it can damage your insulation system. Your entire transformer could be comprised. If it’s like a little bushing or something that fails – one bad bushing can ruin an entire transformer.  There’s some pretty neat tests they did. They do a test where they’ll energize it at a very high voltage than it would ever experience while in service, and then check for partial discharge. We actually did have one that failed the test. They actually found – what happened was there was some metal particles that got blown inside and faulted the winding. We get to do some pretty neat stuff and see neat stuff and go to lots of different places on the system.

(Opening music snippet to John Williams “Superman” theme)

Wingert: I have to ask what it’s like knowing that you can produce lightning – basically, that’s kind of like a superpower.

Hildreth: Yes, I should probably change my name to Thor, the god of thunder. But, no, really, seriously, I think in that case we’re standing on the shoulders of giants because there was some really smart people that came before us, starting with (Nikola) Tesla and (Erwin Otto) Marx and some people who figured out how all this stuff works and designed these things that allow us to control electric power. I think, probably, as we go through our day, we don’t think very much about how much power is at our beck and call at any given moment, but it’s mind blowing. If you went to somebody back in the 1800s and said you could have this power at your command, they would have not even understood what that meant.

Wingert: I’m wondering if you can do something for me. Can you say—

(Music snippet of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” theme)

Wingert: “I am Thor, god of thunder, feel my wrath!”

(Hildreth, Robinson laughing)

Hildreth: Uh, I don’t know about that. I’d have to have, like, some—

Robinson: You got to give him a margarita, and he’d do it. Trust me.

(Hildreth laughing)

(Transition music)

Wilson: Well, that was pretty cool, you know, I’ve been to the high voltage lab one time when I took my kids out there on the tour for “Take Your Kids to Work” day, maybe three or four years ago. It was impressive.

Smith: They need to know that those electrons will go, how they’re going to be herded and tamed, and that they’ll respond in the way that the equipment was designed, so a little lightning is a good thing in that cause.

Wilson: Now, coming up in August, we’re going to bring you an interview with Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter, plus take an in-depth look at the tremendous summer sockeye run on the Columbia and Snake rivers. See you next time. Thanks a lot for listening.

Smith: Thank you!

Wilson: Energy Pulse Northwest is a production of the Bonneville Power Administration.