Tech Insights

Fault Location: Enhancing Grid Reliability With Time Reversal Technology

October 19, 2023 by Jake Hertz

Researchers are employing time reversal concepts to better identify and locate faults on the grid.

In today’s world, where wildfires are more relevant and impactful than ever before, grid operators are looking for ways to minimize the risk of electrical faults that could lead to wildfires. While solutions exist, most have glaring shortcomings, prompting researchers to investigate new technologies.


Wildfire in Arizona.

Wildfire in Arizona. Image used courtesy of Flickr


Most recently, a group of researchers from the Monash Energy Institute have been testing the use of time reversal technology to better identify and locate faults on the grid. In this piece, we’ll look at some conventional fault protection solutions, their shortcomings, and the research from the Monash Energy Institute.


REFCLs at a High Level

Used in modern electrical distribution networks, Rapid Earth Fault Current Limiters (REFCLs) are a common fault-protection component.


Video used courtesy of CitiPower


Installed at substations, these devices function like safety switches designed to mitigate the risks associated with power line faults. When a fault occurs on one of the three wires constituting a high-voltage power distribution line, the REFCL swiftly curtails the energy flow to the fault location. Doing so minimizes the chances of electrical sparks, which could ignite flammable materials and lead to devastating fires.


REFCLs minimize the flow of current to areas with known faults.

REFCLs minimize the flow of current to areas with known faults. Image used courtesy of AusNet Services


The operational principle behind REFCLs involves real-time monitoring and rapid response. These devices continuously monitor the electrical currents flowing through the distribution lines. Upon detecting an imbalance indicative of a fault, they instantaneously adjust the current flow to the affected line. This rapid response is crucial for minimizing the duration and impact of electrical discharges that could otherwise lead to fires or equipment damage.

REFCL Shortcomings

Despite their benefits, REFCLs are not without limitations. 

One notable shortcoming of REFCLs is their contribution to extended periods of power outages. While effective in reducing fire risks by quickly limiting energy flow to a fault, REFCLs make it difficult to locate the fault itself. Traditional fault indicators like electrical arcing become less visible, complicating the task for repair crews. 

As a result, technicians often spend hours patrolling extensive stretches of power lines to identify the issue. This delay in fault localization not only prolongs power outages but also impacts community services, businesses, and individuals who rely on consistent electrical supply.


Reversing Time to Detect Faults

To address the long downtimes associated with REFCLs, a group of researchers from the Monash Energy Institute are looking towards time reversal technology.

Time reversal, specifically in the context of Electromagnetic Time Reversal (EMTR), leverages the properties of electromagnetic wave propagation. When a fault occurs in an electrical line—say, due to a falling tree or equipment failure—it generates a unique set of electromagnetic signals that propagate along the line. These signals carry specific characteristics indicative of the fault's nature and location.


A demonstration of time reversal on a power line.

A demonstration of time reversal on a power line. Image used courtesy of Liu et al.


Here, specialized hardware continuously monitors the electrical lines for these fault-induced signals. Upon detecting a fault, the system records the electromagnetic waves and stores them. The next step is where the "time reversal" actually occurs. The recorded signals are mathematically manipulated to reverse their time-domain characteristics. Essentially, the waveforms are flipped in time, and this reversed signal is re-injected back into the electrical line. The reversed signals then propagate back along the line and converge precisely at the point where the fault occurred. The point of convergence is detected by the same monitoring hardware, which then pinpoints the fault location with high accuracy.

In this way, time reversal enables grid operators to locate faults with a level of precision previously unattainable through traditional methods like REFCLs. This results in decreased downtime in the grid and, thus, more reliability overall.


Putting Time Reversal Tech to the Test

The Monash research team has demonstrated time reversal extensively in Switzerland in both overhead and underground 22 kV distribution networks. While more information about the testing is not known, the researchers claim that their system successfully found the location of faults on a branched network, indicating that the system can work in real-world networks.