Open Innovation Challenges

Underground Infrastructure

Open Challenge: Intelligent monitoring of underground distribution lines

Underground Infrastructure
Deadline for concept summaries: September 16, 2022

Sponsored by

pg&e logo


Current monitoring technology for underground lines lacks the ability to precisely identify and communicate the location of faults.  As a result, repairs are often more costly and time-consuming as technicians in the field must expose larger sections of line to manually identify damage.  Additionally, current technology does not collect sufficient data to enable utilities to proactively manage the health of their underground networks and avoid potential future faults through preventative maintenance.

Desired properties

  • Ability to precisely identify and communicate fault location to remote monitoring site, eliminating the need for manual observation in the field
  • Ability to collect ongoing information about wire conditions and health outside of fault events
  • Increased longevity of monitoring devices without need to replace power source


Category 4: Intelligent monitoring of underground distribution lines

Problem statement

The technology installed to monitor underground utility infrastructure in most cases is reactive, rudimentary and wholly insufficient to effectively manage a vast network of cables over the course of the asset’s life.  These shortcomings result in unnecessary strain on installed cables, as technicians are unable to proactively identify failing cables to prevent faults which cause further deterioration of cable health.  Additionally, in many cases the monitoring devices used to detect failures and faults are operated by batteries that typically have a shorter lifespan than the cables they monitor and depend either on visual inspection or unreliable remote networks to relay alerts. Delays in fault detection may result in prolonged outages, which may be further exacerbated by difficulties locating the precise location of the failure due to limitations of the sensing technology.

Possible approaches

Any solution that provides improvements on the current technology’s ability to proactively predict or precisely locate failures on underground lines, capture key data on cable health outside of critical faults or extrapolate trends to provide a more informed understanding of asset health would be welcome. Additionally, solutions that address issues associated with detection of failures due to network connectivity problems or sensor reliability would also be of interest.

Industrywide Market GapPotential Solution Category
Existing sensors are rudimentary in their
ability to detect and locate faults
Improved sensing technology able to
identify faults and provide more
precise location information
Network connectivity and sensor reliability
issues hinder sensors’ ability to
consistently detect and communicate faults
Technology that enhances sensor
reliability in terms of connectivity or longevity
Existing sensor technology lacks the
capability to proactively manage cable
health for preventative maintenance
Enhanced sensing technology that is
able to detect a wider range of data
points critical to understanding cable health

Ability to better identify transient faults
Known approaches not of interest
  • Procedural / management solutions are not of interest.
  • Software based solutions without a hardware component are not of interest.
Key success criteria


  • Demonstrated improvement over current state-of-the-art technology
  • Ability to detect and communicate location of fault within 10 ft
  • Improved sensor reliability over 40-year lifespan


  • Commercially deployable within 3 years
More solicitations...

The 2022 Solar Manufacturing Incubator Funding Opportunity, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), seeks to develop next-generation solar technologies and strengthen American solar manufacturing. To do so, the prize helps accelerate the commercialization of innovative product ideas that enable continued solar cost reductions, especially in cadmium telluride (CdTe) photovoltaics.


Undergrounding construction unavoidably disturbs soil at the site, generating excess spoils that must be properly disposed of. These spoils must be handled according to specific requirements and often must be hauled off-site for processing, remediation, or disposal. Moving soils back and forth for processing and disposal between off-site locations that are often far from dig sites requires time and resources that could be spent elsewhere. This process is particularly costly in cases where distrubed soil contains hazardous materials.


Labor required for digging tunnels and trenches, laying conduit and pulling and splicing cables drives the majority of undergrounding costs. While some innovation has been made in these areas, the methods and materials used have remained largely unchanged for years.