Powering the future: The evolutions of high-voltage technology, equipment, and tools in Canada
I chuckle when people ask how I got into the line trade because it was a fluke.
One day, when I was young and not too bright, a buddy of mine came up to me and said, “Hey, my dad is looking for someone to be a powerline technician.”
“I don't have a clue what a powerline technician is,” I replied. But I was sick of making hotdogs, so I signed up and never looked back.
While my 24-year career as a journeyman powerline technician at SaskPower had its share of ups and downs, the line trade was the best thing that ever happened to me. Even though it eventually beat the heck out of my body, and I had to hang up my gear, I still bleed powerline technician.
My name is Allen Stanicki, and as a Utility Tool Specialist at EECOL, I help crews work smarter, not harder – all while staying safe. As a tool guy, I’m a hound when it comes to finding the right tool for the job. I’m always looking for the latest innovations to improve efficiency and safety.
By the end of this piece, I hope you’ll appreciate the history of high-voltage transmission in Canada, the modern challenges and demands we face as an industry, and some of the innovations we’ve undergone to improve efficiency, environmental impact, and safety.
Milestones in high-voltage transmission in Canada
The history of how we harnessed electrical power in Canada is long and winding, with many twists and turns. While we can’t cover it all in this article, it’s important to recognize a few significant developments along the way.
The economic boom that came on the heels of World War II increased demand for electrical power and paved the way for Canada’s modern electrical grid. At the same time, the lack of investment in underserved rural areas and small towns, alongside a growing public mistrust of existing privately owned companies, resulted in a push for public investment in electrical transmission.
While some provinces prioritized public investment in the grid, like Manitoba, and others used cooperatives to get power to rural areas, like Alberta, the rest of the 20th century saw Canada follow a centralized grid model that relied on “large electricity generators, using transmission and distribution systems, were most efficiently and cost-effectively able to transport power to end users.”
Modern challenges and demands around sustainable energy
Today, there is a sense of urgency about implementing sustainable energy systems. In August 2023, we saw the government of Canada unveil its Clean Electricity Regulations (CER), which set an aggressive target of achieving a net-zero power grid by 2035.
TD Economist Likeleli Seitlheko estimates tying in more solar and wind energy “could require upwards of $25-50 billion in transmission investments alone by 2035,” not including other grid infrastructure investments like supporting load growth, expanding the distribution system, and upgrading aging transmission and distribution infrastructure.
Regardless of how you feel about the CER, one thing remains clear: Canada’s power grid needs substantial upgrades if it’s going to support a greater mix of renewable energy.
High-voltage equipment, tools, and safety evolution
In my years in the industry and working at EECOL, I’ve seen many changes – mainly to the good – centred around creating a safer and more efficient working environment for everyone. Here is a breakdown of some of the more notable ones.
1) Installation products
High-quality installation products form the backbone of reliable power systems. Innovations in splice and termination technologies, like 3M’s cold shrink technology, have revolutionized our work, ensuring longevity and reliability in Canada’s cold weather climate.
2) Tool safety innovation
Safety is non-negotiable, and understanding tool specifications is paramount. One thing that has become a standard is the Charpy 2 or Charpy Impact Test, which assesses the impact toughness of materials, like metals, at various temperatures, ensuring they meet the stresses of a Canadian winter.
Material innovation is crucial in developing and enhancing a range of high-voltage components for Canada. Here's a breakdown of some of the more significant material innovations:
Power poles and cross-arms
Material innovation in this area includes exploring advanced wood treatments as well as the integration of composite materials to enhance the strength, durability, and resistance of power poles and cross-arms, especially given that Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) has banned any wood treated with the oil-borne preservative pentachlorophenol or “penta.”
High-voltage insulators, essential for maintaining the integrity of power transmission and distribution systems, benefit from material innovations like cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE) and silicone rubber. We’ve come to rely on these materials for their improved dielectric properties, better resistance to environmental conditions, and increased longevity.
Cutouts and surge arresters
High-voltage switching equipment
Since the 1950s, sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) has been the preferred choice for gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) because of its insulation and arc-quenching properties; unfortunately, it is also one of the most potent greenhouse gasses on earth with global warming potential 25,200 times higher than carbon dioxide.
Finding an environmentally safer alternative remained elusive until C4-FN, a fluoronitrile-based gas mixture, was discovered in the last decade. Developed by 3M under the commercial name Novec™ 4710, it is “specifically suited for high-voltage equipment applications, including GIS, gas-insulated lines, and other switchgear applications, such as Dead Tank Breakers (DTBs) and hybrid switchgear.”
4) Safety innovations
Enhanced insulation and protection
These technologies are more than features – they're lifelines that ensure Powerline Technicians return home safely after a day’s work. Today, appropriate clothing, footwear and arc flash-rated Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – such as a hard hat (class G or E), face shield, balaclava, hood, safety glasses or goggles, heavy-duty leather/arc-rated/rubber insulating gloves, hearing protection – are all mandatory if there is a risk of an arc flash incident.
Advanced monitoring and diagnostics
The integration of real-time monitoring and diagnostics has become indispensable in our work. Leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT), electric power automation control systems are pivotal in providing safe and reliable power. This comprehensive system includes potential and current transformers, disconnect devices, and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems.
The future of high-voltage
Change is the only constant in life, and the high-voltage segment is no exception. The demand for greater efficiency and greener power solutions will continue to drive advancements in our industry worldwide and Canada.
As exciting developments like this unfold, our commitment to learning, technology, and better tools opens up new possibilities. Join us in staying prepared and connected by reaching out for support. Whether solving your high-voltage challenges or hunting down the latest in reliable tools and safety gear – we're here to help.
Need more information about utility solutions at EECOL?