Book:The Laboratories of Our Lives: Labs, Labs Everywhere!/Labs by industry: Part 4/Power and utility

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6.4 Power and utility


The labs in the power and utility industry cover at least two broad categories: power generation and transmission (electrical engineering and its sub-branches) and water treatment and distribution (water engineering and management, including water purification chemistry). Natural gas transmission and distribution (natural gas engineering) is a third type, though more often than not these labs appear in the upstream and midstream distribution chain (i.e., within the petrochemical industry). In several parts of the world, the development and maintenance of local, regional, and even national broadband internet infrastructure is increasingly also considered a responsibility of the public utility system. These labs are found in the private and academic sectors, and occasionally in government, providing many different services, including (but not limited to)[1][2]:

  • hardware design, verification, and optimization
  • real-time digital power system (RTDS) simulation
  • magnetic material characterization
  • short circuit analysis
  • high-voltage analysis
  • forensic and incident analysis
  • environmental simulation testing
  • certification testing
  • water quality monitoring and analysis

But how do power and utility laboratories intersect the average person's life on a daily basis?

If you live in a location where access to power and clean water is consistent, to the point of being easy to take for granted, then your life is positively affected by a power and utility laboratory. Sometimes things go wrong, though, as they have done in the city of Flint, Michigan, where government leadership failures and cost-cutting measures led to a problematic water treatment plant and water source to continue to be used despite warnings the water was dangerous.[3] The Flint crisis is a reminder that when processes break down in a public utilities lab—whether caused internally or from higher up in government—people get hurt or even die. Power, water, natural gas, and even broadband internet: most enjoy and expect these basic services on a daily basis, and sound laboratory analysis and research ensures this holds true.

6.4.1 Client types

Private - These company labs provide a wide array of testing services to third-party clients, conduct research, and even provide certification testing.

Examples include:

Government - These are federal, state, or local laboratories responsible for testing and maintaining the safety of water supplies, developing and improving electrical infrastructure, or researching new technologies for public utilities. Occasionally local municipalities will post requests for proposal (RFPs) to contract out regulation-mandated water quality testing rather than invest in the infrastructure to do it their self.

Examples include:

Academic - Academic power and utility labs are largely instructional, with graduate level research helping to expand the field.

Examples include:

6.4.2 Functions

What are the most common functions? analytical, QA/QC, research/design, and teaching

What materials, technologies, and/or aspects are being analyzed, researched, and quality controlled? actuators, conductors, electrical converters, energy storage, high-voltage direct-current links, hydroelectric generators, networking equipment, superconductors, transformers, transmission lines, wastewater, water

What sciences are being applied in these labs? chemistry, control engineering, electrical engineering, electrochemistry, electromagnetism, electronics, forensic science, nanotechnology, physics, power engineering, signal processing

What are some examples of test types and equipment?

Common test types include:

Accelerated stress testing, Accelerated weathering, Acoustical, Aging, Anion, Antimicrobial, Artificial pollution, Bioburden, Chemical and biochemical oxygen demand, Cleanliness, Climatics, Comparative Tracking Index, Compliance/Conformance, Compression, Corrosion, Current and current switching, Damage tolerance, Decomposition, Degradation, Dielectric withstand, Efficiency, Electromagnetic compatibility, Electromagnetic interference, Electrostatic discharge, Emissions, Endurance, Environmental stress-cracking resistance, Failure, Fatigue, Fault simulation, Flash point, Geothermal, Hydraulic, Immersion, Impact, Incident analysis, Induction motor fault, Internal arc, Lightning, Macroetch, Mechanical, Mechanical durability, Minimum bactericidal concentration, Minimum inhibitory concentration, Out-of-phase making and breaking, Partial discharge, pH, Plating and coating evaluations, Power quality, Pressure, Proficiency, Radioactivity, Radio interference voltage, Reliability, Resistance - capacitance - inductance, Short-circuit withstand, Short-line fault, Solar, Stress corrosion cracking, Temperature-rise, Tensile, Thermal, Torque, Turbidity, Velocity and flow, Voltage, Weathering

Industry-related lab equipment may include:

Electrical engineering: arbitrary waveform generator, circuit simulator, configurable test grids, current and voltage probes, inverter systems, LCR meter, machine drive and controller systems, magnetometer, microcontroller systems, multimeter, oscilloscope, potentiometer, primary metering unit, real-time digital power system simulator, Rogowski coil, semiconductor curve tracer, spectrum analyzer, tachometer, temperature camera

Water engineering: adenosine triphosphate meter, biocide test kit, borescope, burette, centrifuge, chlorination test kit, colorimeter, conductivity meter, dissolved oxygen meter, Erlenmeyer flask, hydrometer, incubator, Legionella test kit, oxidation-reduction potential meter, pH meter, purge and trap equipment, reagents, salinity meter, settling cone, spectrophotometer, thermometer, total dissolved solids meter, turbidity meter

Natural gas engineering: See Petrochemical section.

What else, if anything, is unique about the labs in the power and utility industry?

Looking at the lab equipment list above, it's relatively easy to tell that those labs focusing on electrical engineering are by and far dry labs, whereas water engineering labs are (no pun intended) of the more typical wet type. A reliable power supply and clean drinking water are easy to take for granted in first-world countries, but both are backed by laboratorians working in very differently equipped labs.

6.4.3 Informatics in the power and utility industry

The power and utility industry, including its laboratories, are using informatics in a variety of different ways:

  • Environmental informatics plays a role in power and utility labs, where researchers will use informatics tools to improve the integration and analysis of environmental data (such as from emissions tracking) and even make it available in a collaborative way for further regional or global analysis.[4]
  • Geographic information systems and related imagery tools can also positively contribute to utility companies looking to better build and maintain energy transmission and other utility corridors, limiting vegetation management hours and providing more accurate placements.[5]
  • More future looking, consider "power grid informatics," defined by researcher Klara Nahrstedt of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as the study of "the structure, algorithms, behavior, and interactions of power grid physical systems and artificial cyber systems (cyberphysical systems) which store, process, access and communicate information."[6] In particular, Nahrstedt looked at the future of electric vehicles—and one today could also extend it to driverless vehicles—and the "cyber-physical components" and data management considerations that come with a regional or even national infrastructure to support them.
  • Local utilities are using real-time water quality and supply data to improve how they manage water and wastewater treatment.[7]

6.4.4 LIMSwiki resources and further reading

LIMSwiki resources

Further reading


  1. Bartiromo, R.; De Vincenzi, M. (2016). Electrical Measurements in the Laboratory Practice. Springer. pp. 286. ISBN 9783319311029. 
  2. Pizzi, N.G. (2005). "Chapter 12: Testing and Laboratory Procedures". Water Treatment Operator Handbook (2nd ed.). American Water Works Association. pp. 153–164. ISBN 9781583213711. 
  3. Augenstein, S. (14 June 2017). "Flint Water Crisis: Five Michigan Officials Charged with Involuntary Manslaughter". Laboratory Equipment. Advantage Business Media. Archived from the original on 15 June 2017. Retrieved 30 June 2022. 
  4. Falke, S.; Fialkowski, E.; Li, Y.; Biswas, P. (8 December 2008). "Coal Utility Informatics & Advanced Energy" (PDF). Washington University in St. Louis. Archived from the original on 30 May 2010. Retrieved 30 June 2022. 
  5. "Product Launch: New LiDAR Toolkit Announced for Electric Utility Companies". Integrated Informatics, Inc. 1 March 2016. Retrieved 30 June 2022. 
  6. Nahrstedt, K. (9 January 2015). "Electric Vehicles and Their Impact on Trustworthy Power Grid Informatics" (PDF). Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid. Retrieved 30 June 2022. 
  7. "Advanced data management and informatics for the optimum operation and control of wastewater treatment plants". Community Research and Development Information Service. EU Publications Office. 17 March 2016. Retrieved 30 June 2022.