BC Hydro Brief: Substation safety verified by students

With megawatts of power coursing through our electrical system, electrical substations play an integral role. They work to reduce the power to a voltage that can be safely provided to our homes. BC Hydro employs rigorous safety standards to isolate the electric current within the substation, and take in the most unlikely events, like catastrophic storms, into account. BC Hydro invited capstone students to verify different aspects of their safety standards.

Daniel Tiang Quote

Through their research, physical testing, and software based modeling, this group validated a set of standards for the electrical isolation of the 300 substations in BC. “Electrically isolating the substation is essential for safety because if there is a fault in the system, it could cause a sudden surge of power,” explains Daniel Tiang, speaking with his teammates Ivan Gumulia, Keshav Khanna, Sarah Walinga, and Haider Zaka. 

One aspect of their project confirmed the effectiveness of the insulators mounted on certain fence panels. A substation fence is normally kept isolated from other fences with large insulators. BC Hydro has established the level of insulation provided by these insulators based on manufacturer tests and specifications. As a part of their project, the group was asked to confirm this aspect of the insulators.. There are only two labs in BC that can perform tests at these high voltages. One of these labs is at UBC, nestled deep within the MacLeod building.  This group did all of the legwork, including developing a safety protocol for the test, in order to have the university grant them access to this very special lab. They are the first undergraduates to have ever used this lab as part of an independent project. Dr. Wrinch, the team’s supervisor said, “It was the team’s professionalism and vigilance that helped convince the people in charge that the students should be allowed to use these resources.” By doing so they completed a test at no cost to the client that would normally have significant testing fees attached.

Under the testing conditions, the team found the insulators performed two times better than the 10,000 volts set in the current safety standard so BC Hydro and the public can be even more confident that the isolation panels will work in emergency situations.

In other parts of the project, the team did a literature review to determine how much voltage a person can withstand before ventricular fibrillation occurs to establish the soundness of recommended safety levels. They combined this research with their computer modeling of the voltages around substations, incorporating other variables including the size and shape of the substation and the type of soil the station is built upon.  Combined with the physical testing, this will allow the group to make recommendations to BC Hydro on how they can improve their engineering standard.

Describing the achievements of this capstone group, Wrinch stated, “ All engineers have instilled in them the reiterative nature of design, to continuously improve and move the standard of practice forward to be more cost-effective and safe.  Daniel and his team are moving the engineering standards forward a little notch, to make it that much safer, and that much better for everyone.“ 

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