Team looks to steel tower power against storm

Tornadoes and downbursts pound transmission towers across Ontario, causing not only huge economic losses from the needed repairs, but also the interruption of electric service to thousands of customers and businesses, which, in some cases, can be weeks to remedy.

While Ashraf El Damatty cannot control when and where these severe weather patterns strike, he can do the next best thing – build a better tower.

“The weather we are seeing is getting worse,” said the chair of Western’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We have the knowledge to improve (towers), so we need to do so.”

El Damatty, along with Engineering professors Eric Savory, Horia Hangan and Girma Bitsuamlak, eight graduate students and two postdocs, have initiated a research program with Hydro One to mitigate future failures of transmission line structures during those events.

The $1.2-million research project is also supported by Ontario Centres of Excellence and the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“Unlike large-scale events such as hurricanes, the localized nature of tornadoes and downbursts make the prediction of the structural behaviour very challenging,” El Damatty said. “And there are a lot more of these of high-intensity events that we didn’t see in past decades. Almost every year now, we see failures in the lines and we want to be able to lessen those occurrences.”

First off, El Damatty must determine what these tornados and downbursts are made of – what sort of wind patterns are being created and how the transmission lines are reacting to them. The topography of the land and location of the towers also play a major role in how to address the issue. To simulate these conditions, researchers are developing a first-of-its-kind computer code to simulate tornado and downburst wind fields, and can also predict the forces in the towers during those events.

“One of the reasons we have these failures is because people never designed the towers for these kinds of winds,” he said. “They were designed for hurricanes, but not for tornadoes, downbursts or other localized wind events. And it’s not just the intensity, but also the distribution of the intense winds. Once we know the forces we’re dealing with and can predict what will be happening, I can then go and say ‘I can strengthen these locations, I can change this design, I can add or strengthen some members in certain locations.’”

While he can’t guarantee the towers will not fail in the future, El Damatty said improving the design will at least increase the probability of them surviving severe weather.

“The material is steel, so you cannot get any better than that,” he said. “But if the dimensions of the members are not sufficient, you’re going to continue to have the problems. So, it’s in the design.”

El Damatty is excited to take his research on a much larger scale, as he will begin conducting tests at the new WindEEE Dome facility later this fall.

“Western is taking the lead worldwide in various aspects of research and applications related to tornadoes and downbursts,” he said. “The developed software will be the first of its kind worldwide and is expected to be used by utility companies around the globe. Being able to contribute how these sorts of structures are designed is exciting.”

If successful, El Damatty’s research could be incorporated into the design of new lines, and retrofitting of current structures, within the next 2-3 years.