This summer I visited Greenfield Village, near Detroit, a famous U.S. industrial heritage site. The main attraction was the laboratory of Thomas Edison, as Henry Ford had it reconstructed in 1929, having taken it stone by stone from Menlo Park, New Jersey. The inventive genius of Edison has a well-deserved place in history for many reasons, one of which was his indefatigable search for just the right combination of materials for a durable light bulb filament. His reconstructed laboratory testifies well to this fact, with its endless shelves of candidates for this and indeed many other inventions as well.
While a development (as I would call it) rather than a purely test laboratory, Edison’s facility nevertheless bears some resemblance to present laboratories that test equipment for power systems. This is because of the central role played by the ingenious people who work in this field. Competent, experienced staff – with extensive knowledge of the objects to be tested – know the capabilities of their facilities and are able to calculate and set-up required test circuits and other installations. In this regard, people represent a key pillar of the quality and performance verification of electrical equipment – perhaps the critical pillar.
Another pillar is, of course, the availability of standards and guidelines. Standards are issued by organizations such as IEC and IEEE and mostly result from pre-standardization study committees (similar to those within CIGRE) that have input from experts the world over. On top of that, the STL (Short-circuit Testing Liaison), a society consisting of the most reputable laboratories and test organizations, ensures a uniform interpretation of these standards by providing practical guidelines. STL, a purely technical institute, relies on the expertise of volunteers to provide such guidelines. The society also defines test report templates to ensure that end users can easily compare results from different laboratories. The society also defines a code of conduct to maximize quality (however members are free to adhere to it or not).
Here again, the human factor plays a role since impartiality, incorruptibility, confidentiality and honesty are all essential, given the huge role played by certifying bodies in the overall quality of multi-million dollar projects. Failure or success of power equipment under test can easily be determined by e.g. voltage rising a microsecond too late for the breaker, or a little bit of moisture in the transformer oil, or a tiny excess of mechanical stress in a cable termination.
Recruiting ‘new blood’ will be a major challenge faced by all testing organizations experiencing an increase in business volume.
The third pillar is the availability of test facilities that can simulate real-life conditions, as laid down in the standards, and having adequate sources of voltage and power. Testing means flexibility and choosing just the proper combination of ingredients to make a durable ‘toolbox’ for the future. For example, we at KEMA have started construction of an additional synthetic installation to test switchgear for system voltages above 800 kV.
At the same time, the set-up of such an installation is designed to serve other purposes as well. One success in this regard has been the great demand for full three-phase synthetic testing of metal-enclosed 145 kV switchgear – something never before possible under effectively earthed conditions. Also, testing of 800 and 550 kV switchgear can now be performed with much higher efficiency and reliability. Another good example is our commissioning this past May of a multi-purpose facility for performance, safety and application testing of the latest battery storage systems.
Knowledgeable people provide the stability in testing on which all quality and reliability ultimately depend. It is therefore the responsibility of market leaders in this business to disseminate knowledge. KEMA Academy, for example, has channeled experience into various professional courses given not only to our own personnel but for others as well. In addition, a book was recently issued – High Voltage Circuit Breakers – that offers detailed insight into testing these devices and demonstrates that circuit breakers are in fact not simply “plug and play”.
Since people have a far shorter ‘service life’ than do buildings and power test facilities, continuous education and transfer of knowledge will be essential. Given sufficient financial resources, huge test laboratories can be quickly constructed. Developing the skills of the people who will work there, however, will take time. And developing the correct test mentality even longer.
Unfortunately, there are no educational institutes to acquire these and, at the same time, student interest in componentrelated technologies is declining against a rise of interest in power systems/smart grid. The consequence? Some university-based laboratories and training installations are shutting due to cost reduction programs. Students are also losing acquaintance with hands-on technology and no longer have opportunities to see power technology at work firsthand. Engineering in this field nowadays sees computer simulation already a ‘work horse’ and not simply a distinctive feature of power technologies. Recruiting ‘new blood’ will therefore be a major challenge faced by all testing organizations experiencing an increase in business volume.
Perhaps we need to go back to the days of Edison, who apparently well understood the problem of employing the right people and therefore housed his engineers in a nearby well-equipped boarding house. I can recommend you visit Greenfield Village, run by Sarah Jordan, her adopted daughter and a maid. In this regard, these women contributed a great deal to the enlightenment of our world.
Professor Rene Smeets