Top Three Distribution Automation Goals for Electric Distribution Utilities

Published: Fri 12 Jul 2013
A blog entry by Steven Collier

Contributed by:

Steven Collier
Director, Smart Grid Strategies
Milsoft Utility Solutions

Steven Collier's Blog

My good friend Mark Vogt, CEO at Wright-Hennepin Electric Cooperative in Rockford, Minnesota, has led his utility to vision, strategies and business activities that are among the most informed and progressive of any utility that I know about. He recently asked me, "If you had to layout three of the next "big things" for distribution automation, what would they be?" I get asked some version of this question by many people at electric distribution cooperatives and public . Here's how I answered:

So, top three for distribution automation? There are a couple of ways to look at it: (1) top three in terms of what you should do first, or (2) top three in the long run for the 21st century.
So, let's start with what I think are the top three things to do first. You all are already planning or are making progress on several things that I think are minimum mandatory prerequisites for an adequately intelligent grid for the 21st century:
Accurate, detailed circuit model
Backbone SCADA
Outage Management System
Geographic Information System fully populated with accurate asset data base
AMR/AMI and plan for next generation smart meters
Offer consumers premises monitoring and control including energy management
Offer consumers distributed generation and energy storage
Real-time customer and employee communications
Here are my top three in terms of what you should do first:
1. Expand the deployment and utilization of remote sensors on your distribution system (i.e., voltage, current, phase angle, power on/off, weather, waveform) - Until you get full situational awareness you won't know what you need to work on. Mitch Keel at 4-County in MS told me, "Until we started really monitoring and analyzing our system, we thought that we had 'a pretty sharp knife' as far as our distribution system. Once we started getting more and better data and getting it more quickly, we realized that it was actually pretty dull and rusty." Better real-time monitoring and control is going to be essential with increased penetration of distributed generation, storage, EVs and premises energy management systems.
2. Volt/VAR optimization (VVO) - Reduce demand, reduce energy consumption, reduce losses, improve power quality, extend equipment life (utility's and customer's), get practical experience in active distribution grid monitoring and control.
3. Distribution fault anticipation (DFA) - As you get more and better data, you can start effectively anticipating and preventing outages rather than just trying to detect, locate and recover from them after the fact. Take a look at the work that Carl Benner at TX A&M is doing with John Bauer and the folks Pickwick Electric. It would even be worth a visit to see it in person. They have real-time monitors deployed around their system, essentially distribution system phasor measurement units (or synchrophasors) that sample the voltage, current and phase angle more than 200 times a cycle. Then computer algorithms automatically recognized signatures of events that suggest incipient failure (e.g., re-closers operating more than 3 times before locking out, multiple recloser operations in a particular area, noise on the 60Hz wave caused by loose clamps, etc.). This is truly what an intelligent grid is about, knowing in real time what is going on and being able to actively manage the system rather than just reacting after events occur. 
Here are my top 3 for the longer term, for a modern, 21st century electric distribution utility:
1. Automatic Distribution Management System (ADMS) - Today this is primarily automated fault location, isolation, service restoration (FLISR) but it will ultimately apply to many events, not just service outages (e.g., Volt/VAR optimization, EV connection/charging, distributed generation monitoring/control, energy storage monitoring/control). It is computer-based monitoring and control of the distribution system to automatically (i.e., not human dispatched) optimize: 
power quality (reliability, voltage, transients, harmonics, etc.), 
economy (efficiency, productivity, purchased power costs, capital investment, risk management, demand response, etc.),
safety (utility, customers, general public),
security (physical, cyber), and
asset management (not just location/cost/maintenance/replacement, but actual remote control operation).
As distribution systems face hundreds, then thousands and ultimately millions of independent monitoring and control endpoints the only way that they can be effectively monitored and manage is through automated computer monitoring and control . . . and in the cloud . . . via the Internet of Things. For example, think about Wright-Hennepin . . . you will probably be monitoring, analyzing and/or controlling at least several hundred if not a thousand or more distribution system elements. Then you have 47,000 metered customers, many if not most of whom will have several things to monitor/control (no longer just one meter for the entire premises).  Then think about all the additional things that you are already doing and hope to do for customers outside your service area. Wright-Hennepin could easily be in the business of monitoring, analyzing, even controlling a significant portion of millions of endpoints.
2. Transactive energy markets - Every utility, many if not most C&I customers, and some residential customers will either actively on their own or passively through surrogates (e.g., Enernoc, their electric cooperative!!) be engaged in competitive capacity and energy markets. In MISO all the generating utilities already sell everything they generate into the system at market based prices and then buy from the system what they need to serve their customers at market based prices (and the sale price is rarely the same as the purchase price!). This means real-time monitoring of: 
customer demand and energy consumption, 
availability and price of capacity and energy and coordination services,
operation of distributed generation, storage, EVs
customer energy management capabilities

along with the applications to enable matching of demands and resources.

3. Being Digital - All utility monitoring and management will be done via high-speed, two-way digital communications via TCP/IP. All utility and consumer data and applications will reside in the cloud. The 21st century grid will be a convergence of the electric grid and the Internet of Things. A utility simply must have a comprehensive vision, strategy and plans for virtualization, digital communications, cloud operations, the Internet of Things.