Much of the smart grid’s strength lies in its use of wireless technology to improve monitoring, information flow and efficiency. As powerful as that combination may be, a couple of California utilities have taken it to a new low. That is to say they have taken it underground.

In August, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Southern California Edison (SCE) announced successful trials of a new wireless technology that allowed the utilities to detect outages and monitor distribution transformers below ground. In field trials, the technology exceeded the Department of Energy’s (DOE) stated 2016 Smart Grid Performance Target to improve System Average Interruption Duration Index (SAIDI), by greater than 10 percent. The DOE funded the trials with a $2.1 million award.

San Diego-based wireless developer On-Ramp Wireless created the technology. On-Ramp specializes in energy automation. The goal of the project was to leverage wireless network automation and information technology to improve electric grid reliability. The demonstration product employs a cellular-like network that was designed specifically for utility automation. It can be service-powered and has battery-operated sensors in below-ground locations, and it can support multiple applications including grid reliability, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and critical infrastructure monitoring.

In layman’s terms, the technology can connect billions of hard-to-reach devices in large urban areas and in geographically challenging areas. It enables low-power monitoring and control in a variety of applications, including smart grid, oil and gas, water, and industrial. The technology operates in unlicensed spectrum and finds weak signals even in high noise environments.

Historically, opponents have argued that burying power lines is more expensive and that it is harder to find faults. This technology will help offset the expenses of burying, maintaining and monitoring underground power lines, which are typically more expensive than above-ground lines.