Designing overhead lines and substations that will perform reliably for decades has always been a remarkable challenge. So many things can go wrong over such a time frame, especially given increasing levels of pollution, more weather extremes linked to climate change, growing interactions with both humans and wildlife – all potentially culminating in problems linked to flashover, mechanical or other types of failure. Electrical insulators have been applied since the dawn of transmission as the interface between structures and energized conductors. It might therefore seem justified to think of them as basically ‘old’ technology. For example, one can look up at insulator strings supporting conductors on newly built lines and imagine that these are mostly unchanged from what was used generations ago. But while they may appear similar, the past quarter century has seen a succession of achievements that make today’s insulators truly deserving of being labeled ‘high-tech’.
Modern insulators, as with the latest generation of surge arresters and bushings, clearly share ancestry with their early versions. Yet they have evolved to become superbly engineered and optimized, with unusually high and consistent quality given their comparatively low contribution to the total cost in of lines and substation equipment. Sometimes this evolution has been obvious, as in the case of sleek composite designs that offer high performance, with reduced weight and often less creepage – even in severe service environments. But there have also been more subtle refinements to conventional porcelain and glass insulators that are now being manufactured under better-controlled processes and with higher quality materials.
While new international standards have contributed to these advancements, much of what has been achieved in insulator design and performance these past years can be attributed to another factor: competition. In every industry, pressures linked to competition are necessary to unleash all the forces that result in superior products. This certainly has been the case for insulators, surge arresters and other network components. In the past, high market concentration among a relatively small circle of manufacturers as well as various barriers to foreign trade represented obstacles to progress. Today, by contrast, large numbers of qualified suppliers scattered across the globe have come to realize that the key to survival in this intensely competitive business lies in producing well engineered, quality products. For purchasers and users of insulators, arresters, bushings, cable accessories and other line and substation components, there has never been a better time to benefit from the choice from among an impressive range of qualified international vendors who stand ready to meet their needs.
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