• Non-Wires Alternative
  • Drones
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
  • Demand-Side Management

Drones to Improve Identification of Non-Wires Alternatives Opportunities

Dec 06, 2019


As the year draws to a close, reflection emphasizes that 2019 solidified the role non-wires alternatives (NWAs) play in critical energy grid upgrades and maintenance. This year, these non-traditional approaches to address capacity constraints, defer poles and wires upgrades, and modernize local energy grids remain in exploratory and planning phases. However, utilities continue to release RFPs and cite NWAs as a potential mechanism for both reductions in upgrade costs and improved customer engagement. 

To bolster the expansion of cost-effective NWA projects as we enter the year 2020, I am pondering the use of a new technology in project identification and implementation: drones.

Drones for NWA Identification

Talk of the applications for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is growing across the energy industry. Drones for power line inspection, vegetation management, transportation, and distributed generation operations and maintenance are among a few of the energy industry applications explored by Guidehouse Insights, and it’s time that NWA efforts get in on the action. 

Successful implementation of NWAs necessitates utility awareness of their transmission and distribution (T&D) networks. To supplement the incoming data from AMI and grid edge analytics, utilities can use drones to survey T&D lines and capture thermal images of the conductors. A line that runs hot is typically at or near its capacity, increasing the risk of outages. By using drones to survey these lines, grid operators can identify potential locations to implement NWAs.

Among the barriers to the deployment of drones for utility operations is the stringent set of regulations that govern both UAVs and utilities. Drones for utilities require the approval of both the Federal Aviation Administration and the state and local governments. Drones for NWA identification would likely not generate returns great enough to serve as their primary purpose; however, if permitted, the utility can stack the value of their drones by adding an NWA application. 

The Key to Successful Implementation May Be Demand Side Management

Many of the US NWAs implemented to date rely on location-targeted demand side management (DSM) programs, such as energy efficiency and demand response (DR), to relieve grid strain. Where technologies such as backup generation, solar PV, and battery storage have been used in some NWAs, the bulk of cost-effective programs have relied on DSM. Specifically, Guidehouse Insights finds that energy efficiency makes up the largest share of US NWAs. 

Where drones are already sometimes used for T&D inspections (and can help identify at-risk infrastructure), these UAVs may also be able to identify DSM opportunities. As energy efficiency and DR together are expected to continue to make up the majority of NWAs in the near-term, heat-sensing or infrared thermal cameras placed on drones could be used to improve targeting of potential behind-the-meter program participants. The eDREAM initiative explores drone applications for DR, and has even received financial backing from the EU’s Horizon 2020 program.

The uneven regulatory landscape in the US and abroad has led to a patchwork of different NWA-like solutions to improve flexibility and defer expensive grid upgrades. Despite the use case for drones to provide more clarity regarding where and how to make non-traditional upgrades cost-effective, a more uniform approach to these projects is likely a few years away. This nascent phase of NWA market development should inherently support opportunities to use technologies like drones, where feasible. After all, it is through such experimentation that utilities can develop best practices in the identification and implementation of non-traditional grid upgrades.