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When thinking of a power grid, what comes to mind?

Most probably, it's pylons straddling across cities, deserts, mountains, and plains.

On September 4, 1882, American inventor Thomas Edison lit up the JPMorgan Chase Tower on Wall Street for the very first time, after nearly a decade of research and innovation. Several years later, the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla invented Alternating Current (AC), effectively extending the distance of power transmission and bringing long-distance power grids into existence. Through such power grids, electricity is transmitted from power plants to blocks, buildings, and residences, often thousands of kilometers away.

More than 100 years after this pioneering work, 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been introduced to a power grid for the very first time — in Shenzhen, China — totally transforming city operations.

The Shenzhen Power Supply Bureau (SPSB), in collaboration with Huawei, established an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Joint Innovation Lab. The lab's focus is the research and application of new technologies — such as the cloud, the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G, and AI — in the electric power industry. It aims to use Huawei's cutting-edge technology to solve the problems faced by power grids during the process of digital transformation.

AI Enables an 80-fold Improvement in Efficiency

Founded in 1979, SPSB is a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Southern Power Grid (CSG), supplying power to an area of 2421 square kilometers.

"Statistics show that the length of the routes inspected by a common line inspector over 30 years is equal to the length of the equator," said Wei Qianhu, Director of the Transmission Management Institute for SPSB. SPSB now operates more than 5102 km of overhead lines, at 110 kV or above. And while its power transmission lines and devices are distributed across Shenzhen, much of this terrain is mountainous. Traditional manual inspection therefore requires intensive manual work, often in harsh outdoor operating conditions, posing significant risk to workers.

SPSB first began to innovate and pilot an online video surveillance system in 2013. Although, at the time, this system obviously lacked edge-device intelligent video recognition capabilities, it did improve work efficiency, albeit in a limited capacity. Videos and images were backhauled to the control center, then manually analyzed. This approach exhausted edge communication and power supply resources, meaning it could not be put into large-scale use across the entire network.

To solve this issue, SPSB cooperated with Huawei to develop an intelligent inspection system for power transmission. This new system integrates with Huawei's Atlas 200 AI acceleration module, using an AI inference algorithm to analyze images and videos locally and quickly report alarms.

The Ascend-powered AI processor is deployed on all power transmission poles and towers as well as in drone online monitoring cameras. This allows the processor to identify five typical potential risks and seven major pole and tower defects. As a result, the traditional reliance on manual inspection, along with the associated high onsite risks, is replaced with new, highly efficient online video surveillance.

This new inspection model primarily uses intelligent system analysis. When supplemented with manual judgment, it shortens the original 20-day onsite inspection period to just two hours, an astonishing 80-fold improvement.

5G Intelligent Inspection Robots for Substations

Xie Zhiyi, Director of SPSB's 500 kV Pengcheng Substation, views data from onsite intelligent inspection robots and High Definition (HD) cameras, transmitted to large screens that form part of the control center's intelligent analysis system. Launched in 2002, the Pengcheng Substation is the second 500 kV substation in Shenzhen and it has four main transformers. Inspection work at the substation is often complex, and in summer its load can reach 80% of the maximum capacity at peak hours.

"In summer, the demand for electricity in Shenzhen surges, greatly intensifying our Operations and Maintenance (O&M) work. Now, 5G and AI help us simplify this work," said Xie.

After graduating in 2005, Xie Zhiyi joined SPSB and took over O&M of substation equipment, covering equipment power-on and power-off operations, routine inspection, and exception handling.

Prior to the introduction of 5G and AI, routine inspection was time-consuming and tough, usually conducted at night. To ensure the delivery of a normal power supply, major power outages and overhauls had to be performed in the very early morning. And when several substations were involved in a power outage, inspection personnel often needed to drive back and forth between substations.

In the 4G era, most sensors used wired transmission. Hardware communications facilities, such as gateways, Optical Distribution Frames (ODFs), data communication and auxiliary control devices, and electrical and optical cables, all needed to be configured. That meant inevitably high costs, with substations struggling to accommodate so many devices and cables.

"Transmission efficiency is the key," said Dai Shanglin, Deputy General Manager of the Second Substation Institute of SPSB. "We hope that intelligent terminals can use wireless communication, such as 5G, to communicate with power equipment, saving substation space and implementing intelligent connectivity."

In December 2019, Pengcheng Substation was upgraded with intelligence substation, through 5G.

Now, intelligent inspection robots equipped with 5G CPEs use 5G — featuring high speeds, low latency, and large bandwidth — to transmit power device images and infrared-obtained temperature data to the control center's intelligent analysis platform in real-time.

The intelligent analysis platform uses edge computing and AI video recognition to collect data such as meter readings, device temperature, location, and switch status to detect faults and risks, and quickly generate alarms.

Unmanned and intelligent O&M help improve the routine inspection efficiency of substations almost threefold.

The application of intelligent and digital technologies further changes Xie Zhiyi's work. "Now, I'm trying to transform and upgrade to an 'inspection data engineer.' 5G and AI have been used in power transmission, however there is still a large role for the technology to play in the intelligent management of power transformation."

Differential Protection: 5G Competing with the Speed of Light

And 5G-powered intelligent inspection is just one of the 5G pilots SPSB is conducting. The low-latency of 5G is also changing power grids in many other service scenarios, in ways that would have simply been impossible during the 4G era.

Huang Fuquan, Deputy General Manager of the Power Dispatch Control Center of SPSB, demonstrated CSG's innovation in applying 5G in differential protection. "Differential protection for a power distribution network can greatly reduce the area affected by power grid faults, eliminate faults at ultra-high speed, and optimize the electric power customer experience, achieving 'zero perception' of power outages."

Differential protection classifies each electrical device requiring protection as a connection node. Normally, each device's electric input and output currents should be the same. If they are different, the device is considered faulty. In these cases, the automatic controller cuts off the power supply of the faulty device as soon as possible to protect other devices from being affected and avoid chain reactions, resulting in power failure.

To implement differential protection, an automatic controller needs to compare the current at both ends of a circuit. Since electric currents run at the speed of light, differential protection demands extremely low delay figures. Since the delay of traditional 4G networks reaches up to hundreds of milliseconds, optical fibers needed to be used to implement differential protection in the 4G era. However, large-scale deployment of optical fibers is time-consuming, costly, and prone to damage, greatly restricting the promotion and use of differential protection.

The solution — of course — is 5G.

"After multiple rounds of tests in labs and outdoor environments, as well as on the live network with running services, we have verified that 5G networks can replace optical fibers to support differential protection, which requires an ultra-low latency of less than 15 ms. By quickly isolating fault points, differential protection better satisfies customers' power consumption requirements," said Huang Fuquan.

To verify 5G for differential protection, SPSB worked with Huawei to jointly implement the world's first 5G Standalone Architecture (SA) network differential protection test across base stations. The test results gained international recognition, and six technical achievements were ranked first in the world.

5G wireless communication differential protection cabinet

In-depth 5G-AI Integration Lights Up Tens of Thousands of Households

To build a power distribution network that is visible, measurable, and controllable, CSG must be able to identify the location of power outages, loads, low-voltage points, and risks. In order to do this, it utilizes intelligent means such as dynamic device status monitoring and detection and transparent operation, inspection, and control.

In the smart grid era, we are witnessing the in-depth integration of 5G and AI with power grids in more and more scenarios, including new energy grid connections, flexible large grid interconnection, multi-user supply-demand balancing, and interaction between information technologies and power systems.

The innovative application of new technologies like 5G and AI are helping the electric power industry optimize the provision of power, intelligently lighting up tens of thousands of households.

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