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History of High Voltage Power Equipment

How often do you think about electricity? When you throw a switch, do you ever stop to wonder how that electric power was generated and how it got to you? When you’re watching TV, do you ever pause to appreciate the technology that allows your favorite shows to reach you? As you watch your dinner doing languid spirals in the microwave, do you ever think about what powers that greasy heat? None of these mundane tasks would be possible without high voltage power equipment, but odds are, that very rarely crosses your mind, if it ever does.

High voltage power equipment is the backbone of much of modern life, but not many people are ever aware of it. The transformers, substations, transmission towers, and insulators do their jobs faithfully with little recognition. That is, until there’s a problem. When the power’s out and nothing works, then everyone wants to know what’s wrong without ever having known what was going right.

Our goal here is to shed some light on these unsung heroes of our society. How did we get to the high voltage power equipment that provides the juice for all our electrical escapades? And how do we best take care of that infrastructure now that we have it? We’ll take you through the main steps in the development of high voltage power equipment up to this point, and we’ll touch on related subjects (like tower maintenance) when they come up. Keep reading for a complete (but brief!) guide to the history of high voltage power equipment.

The Beginnings of High Voltage Power Equipment

To get at the beginnings of high voltage power equipment, you have to go back to the beginnings of electricity itself. The exact beginnings are up for debate, but many experts attribute Stehpen Gray with starting things off. He demonstrated electric conduction all the way back in the 18th century, and that sparked the invention of glass friction generators in 1740. Those generators are said to have kicked off a lot of different experiments into electricity: Benjamin Franklin, Alessandro Volta, Humphry Davy, and Hans Christian Oersted are all said to have been inspired by that event.

Now let’s jump forward a bit. The official, first high voltage power equipment ever constructed is up for debate, but we do know one of the earliest alternating current (AC) generating units was built by Westinghouse Electric Company in 1895. The company used Niagara Falls to demonstrate how powerful and useful electricity could be for the wider public. Westinghouse Electric and its founder, George Westinghouse, have an interesting history in their own right in regards to the battle between AC and direct current (DC) electricity, but that’s a bit off topic for what we’re doing here. Suffice it to say, Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla won that round, and AC power was widely adopted in the United States. The main advantage for AC power was that it can travel long distances at a high voltage and then be transformed into a low voltage for consumers to use.

Other early hydropower achievements were also being explored during this period in Oregon, Colorado, Croatia, and Japan.

Some Serious Upgrades

Obviously, though, you can’t power thousands of homes with just one AC generating unit. Westinghouse and his successors had a lot to do to take that achievement to the next level. Power transformers were already in existence, but other high voltage power equipment had to be invented to create a usable power grid. Some of those necessary inventions included power capacitors, high voltage resistors, overvoltage protection devices, and measurement transformers.

Once all of the necessary equipment and infrastructure was in place, the power grid continued to grow until it was a major player in American life. The first systems were extremely localized, but since AC power could be transmitted over long distances, the power grid was able to expand over larger areas. This created a somewhat unstable business environment for utilities companies. To that end, they went after (and achieved) monopolies at the state level. The state governments placed limits on rates for consumers and let the companies control the entire grid. This monopoly system was put into place around 1920, and the system remained mostly unchanged until around 1980.

During this period, there were also technological achievements in the world of high voltage power equipment. For example, the first high voltage gas insulated switchgear was introduced in 1965. That’s just one of the many new inventions the industry saw in the 20th century. Advancements like this allowed the power grid to keep expanding and adapting to the growing needs of the consumer.

The Modern Power Grid

As time went on, that vertical structure of the utilities left much to be desired. Congress took action to allow for competition after the energy crisis of the 1970s, and this brought forth a big change in the power grid in some areas. The transmission operators continued to manage the grid, but other facilities could also enter the marketplace. This restructuring process didn’t happen in every state, but 17 of them and the District of Columbia did allow for it to happen, which has increased competition in those areas.

Another important aspect of modern power grids is monitoring. There’s been a trend toward online monitoring in recent years, which helps with planning for maintenance. This is a different kind of upkeep than tower maintenance, which we’ll explain in detail later. It might require a certain amount of outage time, and this type of monitoring and planning helps minimize those outages. The online monitoring means there’s less of a need for fixed maintenance schedules and makes the whole grid more adaptable.

Today, our power grid is a huge, complex, and dynamic system. It’s designed to keep all of our lives powered as efficiently as possible, and it does that through redundancies, competition, and a huge expanse of high voltage power equipment.

Challenges for High Voltage Power Equipment

Our modern power grid is definitely impressive, but it also has its own flaws and difficulties, too. It can be very dangerous if not handled appropriately, so there are a myriad of safety protocols that need to be followed at every step of the way.

One other aspect of high voltage power equipment that’s potentially problematic is that as we become more and more aware of how our actions impact the environment, the sustainability of our electric consumption is a top concern. And since we rely on the power grid so heavily, there’s a lot of attention paid to how we can avoid blackouts and how we can circumvent short circuits.

Another challenge is upkeep. Everything degrades over time, so making sure high voltage power equipment is always in good working order is an unavoidable concern. One way to do that is to perform regular tower maintenance, which we’ll touch a bit more on below.

Tower Maintenance

At every stage of the development of high voltage power equipment, proper tower maintenance has been an essential step. When you keep up with your tower maintenance, those towers will last longer. Part of that recommended tower maintenance is regularly applying protective coatings. Those coatings provide a boost to the anodic protection the towers originally had and thus discourages corrosion.

Anodic protection is a technique that polarizes a metal into its passive region. It’s most commonly used on metals like carbon steels, stainless steels, and nickel alloys, and rejuvenating that protection is a key component in tower maintenance.

Any tower maintenance should happen on a schedule. That way, you’ll make sure you keep up with it, and you can avoid anything getting rundown sooner than it should. Keeping up with a systematic tower maintenance schedule provides the best benefits, the longest lifespan, and the best peace of mind. If you’ve been taking care of your towers, you’ll know you can rely on them. Since these transmission towers are such critical infrastructure to the power grid, that makes tower maintenance a critical step. Making sure any tower maintenance is happening on schedule is a challenge in its own right, but it’s well worth it for the benefits you reap in return. In that way, tower maintenance is less of a challenge and more of a solution.

Environmental Concerns

Like many industries in this day and age, there are major concerns about the environmental impact of high voltage power equipment. One of these concerns is the recyclability of the insulation used in high voltage power equipment. A current favorite cable insulation is cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE). This material is relatively inexpensive while being highly reliable and providing great electrical and mechanical characteristics. However, XLPE is difficult to recycle. To that end, scientists are testing some easier to recycle materials that could potentially be used in high voltage power equipment instead. Nanopolymers are particularly promising on this front, but they need further review to make sure they are up to the task.

Safety Compliance

It shouldn’t be a surprise that high voltage power equipment can be incredibly dangerous. As such, it should also be obvious that serious safety precautions need to be observed at all times when around this equipment.

It’s important to remember that an electric current will flow from one point to another when there is a difference in voltage between those two points, and that current can cause severe injuries or even death. To avoid that, some general advice includes keeping one hand in your pocket while around high voltage systems, wearing shoes with rubber soles, and to never work alone. The buddy system ensures there’s someone there to help if things go wrong.

These tips are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to high voltage safety, though. The full list of things you should do to make sure you stay safe can be found in something called the National Electrical Safety Code (NESC). The NESC is updated regularly to include guidelines for the latest technologies.

Short Circuits

Upkeep like tower maintenance can surely help keep the equipment from breaking down, but you can’t prevent everything from going wrong. Snafus like short circuits are not always avoidable. Transmission lines can see short circuits for a variety of hard-to-predict reasons, such as overvoltage caused by lightning. Short circuits can cause huge problems — if they take a bulk transmitting line out of service, that can destabilize the broader network. As we’ve seen, the power grid is an expansive, interconnected web, and if that’s disrupted, that can mean major issues for a lot of people. That’s why short circuits are such a main concern.

A High-Powered History

As you can see, high voltage power equipment has a lot of lore. From the late nineteenth century until now, the technology has gone through many changes and advancements — we went from a single AC generator to entire power grids. The engineers behind the technology have always been working to adapt it to fit the needs of each new era, and that has propelled us into the modern age.

However, in spite of all that progress, high voltage power equipment still faces numerous challenges. They include ensuring proper tower maintenance, keeping everyone safe, and trying to become more environmentally friendly, among others. Don’t solely focus on the negative, though — high voltage power equipment has still come a long way since its invention. Now, millions of people fundamentally rely on the power grid and can’t imagine life without it.

We’ve looked back on the history of electricity and how we got to our current systems of high voltage power equipment, but what about the future? The next iterations of high voltage power equipment will be more environmentally friendly and suffer fewer short circuits, thanks to technological advancements scientists are currently working on. They’ll fit right into a greener, more sustainable, more reliable future. Of course, no one can say for sure exactly what it will look like, but we do know that the high voltage power equipment that powers our society has always been adapted and advanced to meet the needs of the moment. We’re fairly confident that will continue for many years to come.

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