Real Life Challenge

Are Our Electricity Grid and Oil Pipelines in Danger?


Transmission line and oil and gas pipeline operators must constantly monitor enormous swaths of land for even the tiniest encroachment that might have devastating consequences if not handled and remedied quickly.

To avoid calamities, situations such as a tree growing too close to electrical wires or an excavator digging near an underground conduit must be notified immediately.

Even minor, isolated disruptions can have far-reaching consequences, putting entire regions in the dark due to power outages or generating gasoline shortages.

Overhead Power Lines
Power Distribution Pipelines

The proper operation of the electricity grid and pipelines is critical to our daily life. As evidenced by recent events involving the Texas electricity system and the Colonial Pipeline, this reliance is neglected until these networks fail.

In this blog post, we’ll go through some of the practical challenges that utility operators have in ensuring reliable service, as well as how satellite data analytics may help.

Utility companies all throughout the world must keep an eye on enormous swaths of territory that fall under their jurisdiction. Storm response is a part of that responsibilities. Another part is the ongoing surveillance of infrastructure that reaches for kilometres.


Huge Power Grid

In the Saudi Arabia alone:

  • Power lines cover approximately 89,162 km
  • Oil pipelines span 190,000 miles
  • Natural gas pipelines measure 2.4 million miles

To put that into perspective, US power lines would be long enough to wrap around the Earth’s equator 24 times.


Daily Challenges

Main distribution lines, which move significant volumes of supply close to population centers, and local distribution lines, which fan out to homes and businesses, make up both the power grid and pipeline networks.

Let’s look at some examples of factors that can cause these infrastructures to be disrupted.

Vegetation Management

The encroachment of vegetation on right-of-way corridors is a big problem. If trees or huge shrubs block vistas, crews doing a foot patrol or aerial inspection of pipelines will be unable to accomplish their job correctly. Trees colliding with electricity lines can create power outages for electric providers.

That’s what happened in northeast Ohio in August 2003. After an alarm system in Akron failed, system disruptions swiftly extended across the United States and Canada, leaving more than 50 million people without power. The blackout was the largest in North American history, costing an estimated $6 billion.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) imposed harsher requirements for utilities as a result of the 2003 Northeast Blackout. The regulations mandated that utilities cut trees from power line routes, with fines of up to $1 million per day for violations.

Despite the industry’s adoption of more severe vegetation management procedures, events still happen, and the results are devastating.

A fire in Northern California, for example, raged through more than 88 square miles in September 2020, killing four people. According to state authorities, the fire started when a pine tree fell on an electric distribution line.

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Call before you dig

When it comes to pipeline safety monitoring, there are two things to keep in mind. To begin with, the majority of gas pipes in the United States are buried merely a few feet beneath. Second, while the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) grants the utility the authority to construct, operate, and maintain pipeline systems, the landowner retains title of the land.

The landowner may choose to excavate near the pipelines, which is acceptable as long as it does not interfere with the utility’s capacity to perform its duties. This approach, however, has significant drawbacks, including the potential for pipeline damage, which is why “call-before-you-dig” signs are required.

After a contractor crew ruptured the line in 2016, a gasoline leak ignited and burned for several days, killing two workers and wounding four others, the Colonial Pipeline was temporarily shut down.

Another consideration is making sure the landowner doesn’t cross the line, building something that could interfere with the utility’s ability to perform its responsibilities.

What are some real-life examples? Houses, garages, swimming pools, terraces, patios, and trailers are just a few of the items on the list.

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Bunkering and theft

Along pipeline lines, security is also a major problem. In some regions, theft and sabotage are common and difficult to prevent, resulting in lost economic revenue and environmental deterioration.

For many years, Nigeria has grappled with thievery, often known as “bunkering.” Pipelines that run across Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta are prime targets. The oil is sold worldwide or refined locally after these pipelines are tapped.

According to a recent estimate by the state-owned Nigerian National Oil Petroleum Corporation, 200,000 barrels of crude oil are stolen every day. At today’s prices, that works out to over $13.2 million every day.

There’s also the unquantifiable cost of environmental harm caused by oil spills and improvised refineries, which are common in the Niger Delta.

Nigeria is Africa’s greatest crude and condensate producer, with a capacity of roughly 2.2 million barrels per day (b/d), while production in 2020 averaged 1.72 million b/d. Those figures would be substantially higher if it weren’t for the stolen barrels.

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Satellite technology

The main issue that utility operators confront is being able to efficiently monitor their infrastructure in order to protect against human activity or vegetation that could cause their systems to malfunction.

The ideal system would send an alert to focus on a specific location, allowing operators to more efficiently allocate resources.

One approach is to use synthetic aperture radar (SAR) over a large area for initial detection, followed by optical images over a smaller footprint for more detailed analysis.

SAR is an all-weather, 24-hour-a-day technology that can be counted on to offer regular monitoring even if clouds obscure the satellite’s vision.

Optical satellite imagery, on the other hand, is only useful when there are no clouds. Optical imaging can be acquired with the help of helicopters or drones that can fly below the clouds, but the expenses might be high, which is why SAR can be useful in restricting the size of the imagery collection zone.

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Ursa Space

Satellite Intelligence Company

SARsat Arabia

We have created a large network of satellites data providers, which we process and anlyze to turn it into solutions for our customers

Let us know if you are interested in learning more about our products and capabilities.