Wind can generate electricity, but it can also take it away. A patent filed by Intellectual Ventures, the technology development company run by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold, was made public May 15, and shows how making power lines "smart" -- by placing accelerometers on them -- could help reduce the risk of mechanical failure from the wind.

The patent explains that wind moving through power lines can cause the lines to touch objects such as trees, buildings or other power lines. Movement can also cause fatigue within the lines and their connected structures, which ultimately leads to damaged infrastructure and power outages.

Christine Schraeder, an electrical engineer who works for the city of Loveland, Colo., one of the windiest cities in the nation, explained that such an invention would likely be very useful for long-distance transmission lines. For local distribution lines, however, she said accelerometers probably wouldn’t be useful, since the distribution lines hang from shorter poles and are lighter, making them less affected by wind.

Typically, Schraeder said, wind damage to power infrastructure is the result of ice build-up on long-haul lines. Myhrvold’s patent, she said, could have immense value for a remote smart grid application.

“It just puts some intelligence on your lines without you having to go out and take measurements and physically look or test the lines themselves,” she said. “You can see from a distance because you have sensors sending you data.”

Though Intellectual Ventures declined to comment, the patent description explains several possible uses of accelerometer data. It’s suggested that a sensor could transmit movement data to a dampening device that could counteract the oscillation of the line through the use of line tensioners, “dynamic force couplers to external structures, fans or other aerodynamic devices, or controlled magnetic devices.” The accelerometer data could also allow engineers to see the shape of three dimensional space occupied by the line’s movements, which would allow trees or land to be appropriately trimmed so they wouldn’t touch.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.