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Hawaii firm aims to cut cost of laying power lines underground

HONOLULU — Putting more power lines underground is an expensive part of a plan by the state’s largest electrical utility to reduce wildfire risk, and that price could come down under an ongoing national effort with a Hawai‘i connection.

Several endeavors by companies, universities and national labs supported by federal grants, including Hawai‘i firm Oceanit, are advancing as part of a push from the U.S. Department of Energy to improve aging power grids across the country.

In January, five months after a wind-driven wildfire destroyed most of Lahaina and killed 102 people, the Energy Department announced $34 million in grants disbursed over three years for 12 projects based in 11 states to advance innovative approaches for burying power infrastructure underground.

“Climate-change fueled extreme weather events are increasing the frequency and intensity of power outages across the U.S., harming communities and disrupting livelihoods,” the agency said in its announcement. “Undergrounding power lines is a proven way of improving the system reliability for both transmission and distribution grids as weather events are less likely to interfere with systems that are protected below ground.”

Local engineering firm Oceanit, in collaboration with the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, was selected for a $3.3 million grant that the company intends to use to develop a horizontal tunnel drilling guidance system that senses and avoids obstacles in part by linking “AI- infused” drill heads with information from unmanned aerial drones.

“The system would use machine learning interpretation and high-resolution imaging capabilities to provide real-time guidance for the drill path,” according to the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Oceanit aims to cut the cost of traditional underground utility line construction done with trenching, drilling or tunneling by 50 percent so that on a large scale its envisioned new system would be as cheap as installing and maintaining overhead power lines.

“The deployment of underground power lines will not only dramatically reduce power outages but also safeguard against life-threatening incidents, such as the recent Lahaina fires on Maui,” Patrick Sullivan, Oceanit founder and CEO, said in a statement.

Oceanit’s project is dubbed BURROW, which stands for Borehole Underground Reconnaissance and Real-time Obstacle Wayfinder. The company also has described the technology it aims to produce as “X-ray vision” for utility line drilling.

Jay Andrews, Oceanit marketing director, said work so far is in an early phase.

“This is very much (research and development) at this point,” he said.

Jacob Pollock, who heads up advanced materials development at Oceanit, said the company’s goal is to test a working system in the third year of the three-year project, followed by a commercial product one year after the pilot demonstration.

Pollock added that a crucial step toward successful commercialization will be working with directional drill manufacturers.

The grant award is being distributed over three years by the Energy Department, which sought applicants in March 2023 for what the agency called Grid Overhaul With Proactive, High-speed Undergrounding for Reliability, Resilience, and Security, or GOPHURRS.

Other awardees are pursuing similar objectives in different ways.

GE Vernova Advanced Research from New York received a $3.7 million grant award to dig and install conduit and cables in one step using a system that mimics natural movement of earthworms and tree roots.

Arizona State University was awarded $4.3 million to develop a cable and conduit deployment system that uses water jets instead of a hard drill bit.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University is receiving $2.5 million to develop a drilling system that detects obstacles using radar and accelerometers on a drill head in combination with acoustic sensors on the surface.

The Energy Department said America’s electrical grids have over 5.5 million miles of power lines suspended by more than 180 million poles that are all susceptible to weather-related damage and that the overhead system is involved in most power outages every year.

Hawaiian Electric on O‘ahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Hawai‘i Island has about 9,400 miles of transmission and distribution lines, and about 50 percent is underground.

Putting more transmission lines underground on O‘ahu to guard against storm damage is part of a pending $190 million grid improvement plan that also includes pole and line upgrades, cameras, weather stations and other things on O‘ahu and the neighbor islands served by Hawaiian Electric. The Energy Department has committed to pay for half of this project to be carried out over five years.
Source: The Garden Island

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