Veteran engineers are leaving the utility industry in waves, taking with them their experience with cables and the underground transmission and distribution systems. The Insulated Conductors Committee (ICC), a technical committee for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) within the Power & Energy Society, is helping to mentor incoming engineers to the electric utility industry to ensure that this knowledge isn't lost when experienced engineers leave the workforce.
Cable technology is often not a subject taught within the electrical or power engineering curriculums at colleges and universities nationwide. By drawing upon the experience of veteran engineers, however, the ICC is preparing today's young engineers to handle the challenges of tomorrow.
Condition of Cable
Young engineers will face the issue of aging infrastructure. As the electric industry evaluates the condition of cables in the field, the inspectors are discovering that on many distribution power systems, 1970s-era cables are nearing the end of their life. Due to both inferior materials and designs relative to today's cables and accessory design, these cables and cable systems need to be replaced. In the next 10 to 15 years, many utilities will need to retrofit significant portions of their underground distribution systems that are in operation today.
Most utilities have a field workforce experienced in installing overhead and underground systems. Some of the newer wind farm construction and installation companies, however, often have a steep learning curve, especially when it comes to installing the collector system and its associated cables.
As a result, utility engineers often discover improper installation of underground connectors. In addition, poor jointing leads to partial discharge and subsequent failures.
Utilities also face another problem: the use of in adequate backfill material for collector system cables at wind farms. If installers do not adequately test for soil resistivity and make necessary adjustments, the utility often can face serious problems with cable overheating due to improper design of the thermal resistivity of the installed cable system.
Lack of Standards
At this point, there is no industry standard for underground distribution for renewable energy. The ICC, however, has been working with discussion groups to write standards and guidelines that utilities can use for installing and testing wind farm collector cable systems.
The ICC is also developing standards that address remediation and restoration of the electrical performance of 1960s to early 1980s- era cables to extend their useful, reliable life. There are various methods being addressed in Standards being created or revised under the purview of ICC.
In addition, the ICC created a new subcommittee to focus on field testing of cables and accessories, which is being used extensively to increase cable system reliability.
The ICC is making today's underground cable engineers aware of best practices when it comes to cable system production, installation and maintenance. By becoming involved with this long-standing committee, engineers can exchange information, participate in discussion groups and learn from domestic and international experts in a noncompetitive, noncommercial environment. As a result, they can mitigate risks for their utilities, which often focus on reliability, safety and asset management.
At the ICC meetings, which happen twice a year, about 45 to 50 working and discussion groups address issues with cables and accessories. Six subcommittees also meet to offer and present opportunities for training and education to new engineers about issues that are pertinent to the underground infrastructure. And because of its importance, the ICC dedicates an entire afternoon strictly to education on topics chosen in advance by attendees.
While underground engineers face a plethora of challenges — from the aging workforce to the aging infrastructure — ICC is helping them gain knowledge, leverage other engineers' experience and develop solutions for the power industry.
John Smith (jsmithIII@generalcable.com) is the incoming chair of the ICC, which he has been with since 1985. He also serves as the director of the Marshall Technical Center for General Cable Corp. in Scottsville, Texas, U.S.
Rachel Mosier (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been with the ICC for 13 years and is finishing up her extended term as the chair of the ICC. She is the vice president for Power Delivery Consultants in Deep River, Connecticut.
Editor's note: For information on ICC's March 2012 meeting in Seattle, Washington, U.S., visit www.pesicc.org