Thanks to the efforts of Chris Mather, co-head of the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center, I was able to gain a tour of the Dolan Laboratories, located just outside Columbus, owned and operated by American Electric Power (NYSE: AEP).
This facility is now highly unusual for the electric utility industry. Back in the day, a few other utilities had their own laboratories to test the basic equipment upon which the power grid is based. Alas, most of those laboratories have since been shut down or spun-out to private operators. Indeed, now even the Electric Power Research Institute – the industry’s collective non-profit R&D organization – sometimes uses Dolan for their work.
The labs at Dolan include chemical and water testing facilities and civil engineering (especially related to concrete) capabilities that are mostly relevant for powerplants. However, our tour was mainly focused on the Dolan Technology Center: the set of facilities and equipment employed for testing assets downstream of generation, particularly transmission and distribution.
Electric power transmission and distribution lines look pretty benign, given the lack of moving parts. However, the forces in (and around, and caused by) these cables are, well, shocking.
At Dolan, AEP has the ability to discharge 1.2 megavolts, which creates something not far removed from a lightning bolt. In addition to electrical energy, the labs have physical equipment inside containment rooms that can impart extreme mechanical forces to push supporting items like conductors and mounts to their breaking points. The resulting explosions unleash shrapnel much like a hand grenade.
Trust me: do not try this at home. I won’t get into any specifics, but the stories associated with working on grid infrastructure – usually when something is not right, often in difficult environmental conditions (night, rain, snow, wind, cold, heat) – are sobering.
A key function of Dolan is to quality check the supplies that AEP receives from its vendors before deploying to its grid, where failures harm service reliability, pose safety risks and are expensive to repair.
To illustrate, our host Bob Burns (Manager of the Dolan Technology Center) showed us how Dolan has been working to improve underground distribution cables. Twenty years ago, due to the novelty of the technology, AEP rejected upon receipt about 5% of its underground cable purchases owing to unknown defects. Dolan was able to identify the root causes of cable failure and work with manufacturers to dramatically reduce those failures by changing designs and production processes – with economic, reliability and safety benefits that redound not only to AEP but to the power industry at large.
In addition to its grid focus, the Dolan Technology Center also includes a number of end-use application testing facilities. For instance, the main facility includes a dummy household kitchen containing a number of appliances (stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, water heaters) and control systems, a spectrum of electric vehicle recharging stations, and various installations of advanced lighting and metering technologies.
Although we spent most of the tour indoors, outside were some other uncommon capabilities. Down the road a half-mile was a former site of a small peaker powerplant, at which Dolan staff experiments with novel technologies relevant for microgrids, including grid-scale energy storage and small-scale distributed generation. It was here that Dolan has been helping Echogen with their innovative waste heat recovery technology, and it is here that the Dolan is testing community energy storage approaches for AEP’s GridSmartOhio pilot program to be rolled out in suburban Columbus.
It should be noted that AEP contracts out Dolan’s equipment and staff to perform services on behalf of third-parties, and that they have ample spare capacity. Facilities like this are not found in very many places. It’s an asset that the cleantech community should capitalize upon more fully. If you need some specialized technical help related to the power industry – especially in on high-voltage issues – and you’re not able to find a place to get work done, I’m sure the good folks at AEP’s Dolan Laboratories would be happy to take your call to see if they can fit the bill.