High Voltage Transmission Lines an Area of Opportunity for LiDAR

Greetings from Huntsville, Alabama! I am excited to have been offered the opportunity to contribute to LIDAR News. First off, a few caveats. My companies (GeoCue Corporation and QCoherent Software, LLC) offer software and services in the kinematic laser scanning arena to both production companies and end-users of LDIAR data. Even though I will always strive to stay neutral in my articles, you need to be aware of my unconscious bias! While I deal professionally in all aspects of kinematic laser scanning (that is, laser scanners where the sensor is in motion during the scan), my focus within this forum (at least for now) will be on airborne systems and applications. You can read specifics about my background and involvement under the Author biographies.

I am very concerned about the business drivers for airborne laser scanning in the United States. Much of the current work is being funded by state and federal initiatives. I think this is also the case with European operations. With mounting pressure on all agencies to close the budget deficit, not having other eggs in the basket could lead to financial doom for LIDAR operators. Thus companies with significant airborne operations need to explore non-governmental sources of project work.

While the federal government may be interested in reducing spending, they show no signs whatsoever of reducing regulation and oversight. To me, one of the obvious pursuits of a business is in assisting other businesses in meeting government-mandated requirements. For example, the Federal Railroad Administration has mandated train control systems under the Positive Train Control (PTC) initiative. Several railroads are using LIDAR as a source for populating the asset databases needed to realize PTC systems. This is a business area that GeoCue has pursued (with LIDAR data collection systems deployed at CSX and BNSF) to reduce our reliance on the traditional customer base. The area of regulation and resultant opportunities that I will be discussing in this and the next several articles are those affecting the electric power transmission industry in North America.

To me, it is hard to imagine a regulatory environment more complex than that of electricity generation and distribution in North America. The primary area of opportunity that I want to explore lies in high voltage transmission and thus we can narrow our lens to this particular regulatory area (it is important to note, however, that there are many other opportunities for kinematic laser scanning in the electric outside plant area, particularly asset management).

The particular area of our initial focus is the North American bulk transmission system. This is basically the system of components (towers, wires, transformers, AC-DC-AC converters, &c.) that interconnect the various generation facilities and, ultimately, end-use distributors of electricity. Interestingly enough, the standards for physical/logical connection, reliability, operating procedures and so forth for the bulk power system are governed by a consortium of none other than the companies themselves! This organization is the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC, www.nerc.com). While NERC was originally comprised entirely of power industry participants who formed an organization to improve reliability, it has morphed into an organization with a large internal staff and has gained enforcement authority. Still, the standards and procedures created and enforced by NERC originate from committees whose membership comprises volunteers from the bulk power system companies. It is interesting to note that NERC remains a non-government organization.

The US Federal government regulates the bulk electric power system via a federal agency called the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC, www.ferc.gov). Up until 2005, FERCs primary regulatory responsibility was the regulation of interstate energy pricing as well as hydroelectric dam construction and safety. Following the massive blackout of 2003, the federal government added bulk electric power reliability to FERCs charter. Realizing that it is best to be in charge of ones own destiny, NERC lobbied for and won designation as FERCs reliability enforcement arm. This was a natural fit since NERC and its predecessor organizations had always been keenly focused on transmission reliability. Thus NERC now has the authority to not only levy requirements but also to levy fines (many quite substantial) for violations. It is important to note that NERC does many things in addition to acting as FERCs reliability enforcement arm. It is also important (I think!) to realize that all of NERCs enforcement authority derives from member company agreements and the authority that flows from FERC. For example, FERC is in the process of redefining the bulk power transmission system, a change that will automatically enlarge NERCs reliability enforcement scope.

Now that we have the preamble out of the way, in the next issue we will explore just what comprises the bulk transmission system and how LIDAR plays a role in its reliability.