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Electric Eyes

These days, advanced computer technology helps engineers “see” hundreds of miles of power lines in real time so they can spot trouble and quickly fix problems.

In substations and at selected spots along power lines, sensors known as intelligent electronic devices report what’s happening at relays, switches, transformers, and other equipment. This data shows up on computer screens in the main office, and is also saved for study later.

These devices out in the field don’t just send information—they can also receive it. They can react to commands sent from the office.

Power dispatchers call these systems SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), shorthand for the network of sensors, communications devices, and computer programs that handle the incoming and outgoing information.

Available from several different independent suppliers, a SCADA system works with an electric utility’s other computerized systems such as outage management systems and engineering analysis software. The MultiSpeak Initiative, a unique National Rural Electric Cooperative Association collaboration, helps utility company computer programs from different suppliers communicate with each other.

But as smart as the computers are, they still need people.

When a SCADA system sends in an early warning of a transformer getting too hot or an alert for a tree limb touching a wire, dispatchers and engineers use their practical knowledge to make decisions about how to correct problems. Their commands from the central office to open and close circuits can save valuable time for crews in the field working to restore power quickly.

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