A utility pole at Ameren’s Technology Application Center in Champaign, Illinois. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Energy News Network

Ameren is testing utility pole sensors that could alert it to maintenance issues and maybe someday play a bigger role in managing the electric grid.

The wooden utility pole has changed little since it was first used in the mid-19th Century to string telegraph line between cities.

At a test site in Champaign, Illinois, though, researchers are getting a glimpse at how the humble utility pole could get a reboot for the smart grid era.

Ameren is piloting sensors that connect transmission poles to the internet as part of its newly built microgrid project. The immediate aim is to trim maintenance costs and shorten response times for repairs, but it’s possible smart poles could someday help integrate distributed generation on the grid.

Rod Hilburn, manager of Ameren’s Technology Application Center, said that in the event of a downed pole, a sensor could alert the utility with a precise location and a message that includes the size of the pole, number of crossarms and other details.

“We can automatically send an order that says: ‘line department, here’s what you need to grab.’ And we can be headed out to the location to restore power,” Hilburn said.

Ameren employees do routine pole checks about every four years, but with sensors, information could stream back to Ameren near constantly.

One of the things the pilot is trying to determine is how far a pole can lean before it requires maintenance. “We are trying to understand what the data — from an algorithm perspective — tells us about whether or not the pole is good or bad,” Hilburn said.

Ameren is testing two designs: a sensor developed by Israeli tech company Atomation that can be nailed to the side of a pole, and a pole-top sensor designed by the Electric Power Research Institute that can be attached to crossarms, lines, and poles.

When the first two prototypes were installed on utility poles last March, the company found some bugs but also a larger problem for studying how the degree of tilt affects reliability: the poles stood straight and sturdy.

“They weren’t moving,” said Dan Muhleman, a technician at the application center. “We can’t get much data that way, and we can’t test that way.”

At first, Muehlamn struggled to develop a way to simulate pole movement. He tried PVC pipe and wood boards before settling on a small model constructed with Legos, which were easy to move and could simulate a leaning pole.

“I devised this so I could have a controlled environment,” Muhleman said. “These are actually my kid’s Legos.”

A utility pole model made from Legos helps test how list affects reliability at Ameren’s Technology Application Center in Champaign, Illinois.

Beyond measuring tilt and reliability, could a smart pole help a utility save energy or integrate utilities in the grid? Guy Weitzman, co-founder and chief executive of Atomation, thinks that it can.

“In the future, I see lots of directions where we can connect this technology into other devices that could help monitor energy consumption,” Weitzman said.

Weitzman said the pole sensors could communicate with other smart devices, providing a utility with electricity performance information from the grid to the pole, from the pole to the meter, and from the meter to the house.

Atomation’s work is not exclusive to the energy industry. The company developed an internet of things platform to connect “dumb devices to the internet,” Weitzman said. Its U.S. operations are based in St. Louis, Missouri, and its sensors are used in valves, motors, consumer electronics, medical devices, among other things.

“When we started this pilot, our first initiative was to give Ameren a platform where they can connect the pole to the internet and then they can do whatever modifications they want,” Weitzman said.

Utility poles have seen little innovation in nearly two centuries. Ameren’s pilot is posing challenges and questions about how to modernize a vast network of poles designed to simply stand still and be sturdy.

After Ameren is satisfied with the technology, it will still have to develop a business case for upgrading its utility poles — a potentially expensive proposition. Other utilities have recently faced pushback on grid modernization plans.

Beyond cost, other issues to consider include cybersecurity and data storage. The North American Wood Pole Council estimates there are 130 million wooden utility poles across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Millions of smart sensors would create a daunting amount of data for utilities to store and manage.

Ameren is grappling with these and other logistic questions, like how to transmit data. Atomation’s sensor uses Bluetooth technology, which requires proximity and could be an issue on a large scale.

The next step will be to install 15 pilot sensors on utility poles in Champaign, before deciding on the business case for a broader roll out. Until then, don’t expect more change than a gradually leaning pole here and there.

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.