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Power Boost: How Smart Software is Strengthening the Local Grid for the ‘Work From Home’ Era

Koch Industries’ acquisition of sensor and software developer Sentient Energy could make local power grids safer, smarter and more dependable.

July 9, 2020

min read

COVID-19 has put a great strain on people and resources, reminding us strong supply chains for food, water and medicine are essential to modern life. But we shouldn’t forget a piece of infrastructure that is equally vital to our everyday existence: our power distribution grids.

This includes the crucial cables that ferry power to our homes and businesses, keeping our lights on, our appliances whirring and our internet ticking. “Having reliable, high-quality power is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have for us to exist,” says Don Brown, vice president of business development at Koch Engineered Solutions (KES), a subsidiary of Koch Industries. “If the electricity goes down, it’s not just the lights that go out — it’s our internet access, which is the way we communicate. It’s our transportation, our heating and cooling, and our cooking.”

There is good news on this front: Koch Industries is harnessing the power of sophisticated sensors, advanced software and artificial intelligence (AI) to make local grids safer, smarter and more dependable for the working-from-home era and beyond. In an important first step toward this mission, KES has acquired Sentient Energy, a fast-growing provider of intelligent line sensors and grid analytics software for fault detection and outage prevention. 

Sentient Energy’s intelligent line sensors and sophisticated grid analytics software technology can help mitigate powerline failures. Brown calls Sentient’s sensors — compact devices that clamp on overhead lines, as well as compact boxes that monitor underground cables — the “eyes and ears” of the local grid. That’s because they continually gather mountains of data about voltage, current and power flow through the network.

  • Sentient Energy sensor

    Sentient Energy's intelligent line sensors are the "eyes and ears" of its sophisticated grid analytics software technology that can spot power line issues early.

  • Sentient Energy sensor

    Sentient Energy's intelligent line sensors are the "eyes and ears" of its sophisticated grid analytics software technology that can spot power line issues early.

“Sentient’s sensors combine the technology we all carry around in our smartphones – a network connected, lightweight high-performance computer – with the electrical sensing capabilities of an oscilloscope,” says Michael Bauer, Sentient Energy’s founder and president. Those sensors may be ultra-sensitive, but they are also sturdy. Bauer explains they can operate on power lines carrying up to 36,000 volts in temperatures ranging between -40 degrees Celsius (°C) and 85 °C, and in wind speeds of over 240 kilometers per hour.

Bauer explains those thousands of eyes and ears relay high-resolution data about grid performance to a “brain”: data analytics software that continually churns out operational insights. This allows for both smoother power flows and earlier detection of potentially serious challenges posed in the low- to medium-voltage distribution networks powering your home, office and community.

“Because our modern lives are so intertwined with electricity, reliability is key for customer satisfaction, and most utilities are keenly interested in improving in that area,” says Bauer.

The need for Sentient Energy’s technology has never been more urgent. Our entire power grid, including the overhead transmission lines that ferry power from large power generation facilities to load centers and the distribution grid that steps down that power for safe use in our homes, is aging. And the strain on the local grid is growing, with newer technology such as rooftop solar installations, microgrids and electric vehicles (EVs) all contributing. “Finding and fixing the root cause of a power outage is difficult, grueling work [because] the grid is vast - six million miles just in North America,” explains Bauer.

A big part of the problem is the distribution grid was originally built for one-way power flow from large generation facilities such as coal, gas, nuclear and hydroelectricity plants to industrial, commercial and residential consumers. This makes the current grid ill-suited for flowing the multitude of highly variable, nonsynchronous electricity flows from newer technologies. “All these factors mean that the distribution network is getting increasingly complex and challenging to safely and reliably operate,” says Brown.

When those stresses become unmanageable, circuit breakers kick in to protect the distribution grid from damage by current overload or short circuits. “You can see 500 homes go dark as the grid figures out how to reroute the power,” says Brown. Those outages also can damage appliances like computers, air-conditioning units and refrigerators. “Our electronics are increasingly sensitive to the quality of power — they can’t have any blips,” explains Brown.

But line failures can cause very serious disasters, too. Take the 2015 Butte Fire, where California authorities determined contact between a tree and a powerline sparked a wildfire that resulted in loss of life, burned more than 70,000 acres of land, and destroyed more than 900 structures.

Though many of those issues can be fixed remotely, interventions are sometimes necessary. For example, Sentient’s software could infer from a tell-tale blip in power flow data that a tree branch has fallen on an overhead line. The software could also zero in on a potential transformer failure in an underground network of cables by triangulating the signals from Sentient’s fleet of underground sensors. Or identify down power lines after a catastrophic event, like a tornado or hurricane, to quickly mitigate any issue before it becomes a major problem.  

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Industry data suggests large-scale outages can cost distribution grid operators more than $1 million per minute in operating expenses. If utilities can minimize that downtime, they can pass the savings on to customers in the form of lower energy bills.  

Currently, just 1% of North America’s 6 million miles of power distribution lines are covered by intelligent sensors – and that’s before you get to the rest of the world. Grid modernization is not only a North American opportunity, but a global opportunity for Sentient and Koch. “Sentient’s products will serve a growing global multibillion-dollar market over the next decade,” says Bauer.

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A large part of the global grid is underground. Sentient's underground sensor (shown here on the left) is installed on that existing infrastructure.

Rebuilding the entire distribution system from the ground up is simply unrealistic, explains Brown. “That’s why we have to come up with retrofitting solutions that use a combination of equipment, software and analytics.” He adds that Koch is well-equipped to meet the challenge, noting one of its particular strengths is “cross-pollinating” expertise and technology from other areas of the company, whether it’s chemical plants, refineries or factories. “Similar to what we are doing in areas like mass transfer, combustion engineering, and separation, KES’ vision to build an intelligent electric grid platform underscores our commitment to providing solutions that help our partners and customers solve their highest value challenges,” adds Brown.

Brown points to another crucial Koch advantage. “We bring fresh thinking, he says. “We’re thinking about this in a new way, and that will help us convert the distribution grid into an intelligent network that can serve generations to come.”