Long Time Coming

Warren B. Causey | Jun 17, 2009

Many people don't realize that despite the tremendous hype of the past couple of years, and the push toward advanced metering infrastructure and home automation, utilities have actually been adding intelligence to their distribution and transmission grids for a number of years. And they are making good progress. Several examples exist, such as the one at We Energies.

DA to the Next Level

We Energies has led a consortium of utilities and vendors, working with the Electric Power Research Institute, in a project called Distribution Vision 2010. The project began in 2000. The plan is to bring distribution automation to another level by making the distribution system so automated that it corrects itself virtually without human intervention. The basic idea is to take high-speed, fiber-optic-based communications systems, overlay them on the distribution grid, and develop intelligent devices that can do the switching and adjustments remotely, using more than one pathway for the electricity -- in effect, dynamic reclosing.

We Energies developed a premium operating district in a commercial area of New Berlin, Wis. This pilot project demonstrates a four-tier level of new switching designed to make the district virtually outage-proof. The system uses three different feeder lines to the district, thus incorporating the concept of a matrix. If one feeder is interrupted, the system automatically switches to another. The switching is designed to occur within four cycles of current. The four-tier system also ensures that each end of the traditional radial distribution system is treated as though it was the front instead of the back of the system. In 2006, a similar system went into service at BC Hydro.

Artificial Intelligence

Advanced supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and other systems -- including some advanced geospatial systems -- enable utility operations personnel and executives to see what is happening on the grid. Advanced artificial intelligence systems will enable them to see it in action, but with less concern about what must be done when something fails. Randall L. Smith, information systems and technical support SCADA, at Pacific Gas and Electric describes the process.

"We started implementation of automated sectionalizing restoration in July and have several of the configurations operational now," said Smith. "What sectionalized restoration does, is when one part of the grid goes down, intelligent systems automatically reroute power and restore as many homes and businesses as possible without human intervention. In the past, all this had to be done by hand. Crews drove to the field and threw switches, or later they could be remotely thrown by system operators in control rooms. In the new automatic systems, computer systems with built-in rules and semi-artificial intelligence determine what needs to be done and throw the switches. This allows the utility to dispatch crews only to the specific points where human intervention is needed."

Other "Intelligent" Moves

In addition to these obvious smart grid projects, utilities are also experimenting with composite-core power lines that reduce sag in lines, thus reducing line loss and tree-trimming necessities. They are also working with companies that can read transmission voltages, sine curves and other characteristics from remote locations, reporting power condition and quality via various communications systems back to operations centers. Some of them are looking at 3D modeling techniques for construction and social networking to enable collaboration across all departments and communicate with the new generation of workers now coming on board.

Utilities have always been involved in advanced technologies and in the past built many of their own software systems, helping develop modern customer information, geospatial, work management and other capabilities. The industry has been slow-moving with regard to major change, but that is primarily because of regulatory environments. That does not mean utilities have not been exploring technological frontiers on the grid. In essence, the electric grid of today is not a 100-year-old dinosaur. Utilities are sophisticated enterprises that have specialized in any technology related to delivering reliable power to the public. And they will continue to make the grid smarter.

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Intelligent Utility magazine is the new, thought-leading publication on how to successfully deliver information-enabled energy. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue.

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Fascinating and nice overview of the state-of-the-art in DA. What is particularly revealing is that most utility engineers have been studying and pilot testing advanced DA technologies for many years, but only in some places and not necessarily in every utility company. Moreover what has prevented them from adopting advanced technologies on a large scale throughout most of the national grid is the regulatory environment utility companies are slaved to operate under.

I am not a power systems engineer but it seems to me that outage management has been the primary focus of advanced DA. This is great for maximizing distribution reliability, but advanced DA is probably viewed by many as only one facet of new technologies needed for a Smart Grid.

The other facets involve dealing with much more distributed part-time micro-generation sources of wind and solar power. Advanced DA will be a critical contributor for enabling these as well as other technologies.

Another need in the nearer future is enabling more demand response techniques to mitigate the looming disconnects between growing peak demand and stagnant growth in total generation capacities in some parts of the US. The latter will become an acute problem in many more places when over the next several years we will see demand escalate with the mass commercialization of Plug-in-Hybrid Electric Vehicles all charging off the grid at random times. PHEVs will not necessarily be guaranteed to recharge only at night when excess capacities are avalable, you can bet consumers will recharge during peak daytime hours if they need their vehicles before the next morning.

Another very recent need is emerging for technology to enable more real-time utility-to-customer communications for residential consumers to practice more energy monitoring and demand responses with smart Home Area Networks.

If the government and others suggest the grid is suffering from being a dinosaur, it's primarily because of a lack of technical standards and a lack of huge amounts of money required to widely implement all sorts of technologies that are available to utility companies today.

Bob Amorosi, M.Eng.
Resident of Ontario Canada

Good article, Warren. I've been rough on you in the past, but you're good on this one. Bob's point is well made, though. Metering / "smart grid" designs must pay attention to the customer interface regarding real-time-relevance of consumption in order to avoid being a waste of resources.

I couldn't resist contrasting the last sentence in your excellent summary, "Utilities are sophisticated enterprises that have specialized in any technology related to delivering reliable power to the public. And they will continue to make the grid smarter." with this quote:
"The dog food industry spends more in research and development than does the electricity industry.” Massoud Amin, director of the Center for the Development of Technological Leadership at the University of Minnesota- 6/3/09

Would be nice to create SCADA but at the present moment the real risk for industry is Global warming.
For you and your friends I have a question: how the effect of induction heating produced by alternative current electrical generators and realized at Earth crust relates to following items from Wikipedia - Electrical generator, Faraday's law of induction, Induction heating, Structure of the magnetosphere and Earth-crust-cutaway?
I stay open for discussion.

Best regards
Chavdar Azarov
MS of Electronics and Microelectronics

Minor quibble about composite core power lines. They do, indeed, reduce sag in power lines caused by line heating. The composite core is lighter and has a lower coefficient of expansion than the steel cores of conventional lines. That allows the lines to run hotter and carry more current than conventional lines with the same conductor cross section. But when doing so, the ohmic losses are higher, not lower. Loss = I * I * R, and 'R' is unchanged by the composite core.

You are correct that NM has many things that bring new prommiss to a old question of HOW TO. The answer is in the natural atmosphire around us and many can't see the flag and tree leaves moving.
RENEWABLE (THERMAL)=WIND the energy power source is that systems.
The best of wind, solar thermal just a few that make up this systems of 8 naturals and 6 man made technologies ( NO BATTEWRY STORAGE ) on demand power from a renewable source combinations, Many say Hybrid. or combined cycile systems. Clean green energy for the planets envioment.
Get the informational disc facts from it's creator of 40 years of research.
kennynabb6@win.net Yes we can make a differance in our life time only if we act together to save our planet's envioment.