Mary Shelley would be shocked if she visited BPA’s ultra-high-voltage lab. It can generate lightning impulses up to 5.6 million volts to perform all sorts of tests.
In nature, lightning can be up to a billion volts. In the indoor lab, we’ve got an indoor impulse generator that can generate 2 million volts. While natural lighting can travel several miles across the sky, the lab-produced lighting can travel well over 50 feet, which is pretty impressive. This is more than enough to simulate distant lightning strikes on a transmission line.Joshua Powers, electrical test engineer
*Mary Shelley titled her book, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Prometheus was a Greek god.
The lab, which employs a mad scientist or two, and is only one of four in the country, also uses a cascading transformer that produces 1.1 million volts to test equipment, helping to keep the power grid stable and BPA employees safe.
“We test any new line equipment that’s going to be put on the system before it gets installed, before we even purchase it, to make sure it will meet our corona requirements,” said aptly named Joshua Powers, electrical test engineer.
A corona discharge can happen when the voltage stress on a part of a transmission line or line component is too high, and the escaped electricity ionizes air around that component. That ionized air turns into plasma, which is conductive and is troublesome for several reasons, according to Powers.
“There are line losses, TV and radio interference, audible noise and damage to line components,” he explained. “With over 15,000 miles of transmission lines, if we didn’t mitigate corona, we would have whole generation stations dedicated to producing corona.”
Dr. Victor Frankenstein would be stunned by BPA’s ability to control electricity. In Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein waited for a powerful lightning storm to harness its electricity and bring his creation to life. In real life, humans have more stable and powerful ways to produce electricity, thanks to modern technology and Mother Nature. In the Northwest, that ability is marked by 31 federal hydroelectric projects, which produce the region’s most abundant energy source: hydropower.
Though the lab doesn’t harness lighting, it does mimic it. Using lightning impulse generators, the lab can simulate the effects of lightning strikes on various pieces of electrical equipment: disconnect switches, conductors, bucket trucks and other important components that enable BPA to maintain its transmission grid across a five-state territory.
“In nature, lightning can be up to a billion volts,” said Powers. “In the indoor lab, we’ve got an indoor impulse generator that can generate 2 million volts. Outside we can produce 5.6 million volts. While natural lighting can travel several miles across the sky, the lab-produced lighting can travel well over 50 feet, which is pretty impressive. This is more than enough to simulate distant lightning strikes on a transmission line.”
The high-voltage lab staff also coordinates with other entities in the energy industry, such as public utilities, tech and manufacturing companies, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to test failed components, new designs or assess the safety of equipment. In addition to the ultra-high-voltage lab, BPA has a high-current lab, medium-power lab and fog chamber that it uses to keep crews safe and ensure the reliability of the transmission system.
Powers finds the work to be the most interesting he’s ever done and plans on retiring from the lab.
Perhaps Shelley was prophetic in her 200-year-old story when she wrote, “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful,” if she was describing electricity.
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BPA met all of its annual performance targets and finished the year with higher-than-expected net revenues totaling $964 million against a target of $172 million