A little-known problem threatens systems that deliver electric power to residential and commercial customers: the underground distribution cables that operate at 12,000 volts or higher will perform well for a few decades and then suddenly fail with a dramatic one-nanosecond arc.
Pacific Gas & Electric alone has 25,000 miles of three-phase distribution circuits (75,000 miles of aging underground cables), and no real economical way of telling which ones are unhealthy. The California Energy Commission has just funded a three-year interdisciplinary (electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and material science engineering) research program at University of California, Berkeley, to understand the failure mechanisms and find feasible ways of checking the health of cables to prioritize replacement.
The primary goal of this research led by Professor RichardWhite, is to develop and Intelligent Infrastructure to monitor in-situ maintenance and to explore the degradation of underground AC power distribution cables. Two sub-teams have been created to tackle specific sub-goals.
During the course of this research, the interdisciplinary research team will work closely with the California Energy Commission and the three investor-owned utilities in the state of California (PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Water and Power) to understand the needs of all the stakeholders involved and be able to produce a user-friendly infrastructure.