Leveraging the Power of a Grid in Transition

Leveraging the Power of a Grid in Transition

This piece was originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of electroindustry.

John V. Lampe, Business Development Director, Distribution Automation, Itron

The electrical industry is in transition from a predictable grid—with few sources of energy and few monitoring and control points—to a dynamic one with many monitoring and control points. Three categories of change motivate this transition:

  • the public’s reduced tolerance for outages;
  • increased emphasis on cybersecurity; and
  • society’s desire to employ more renewable energy for electricity and transportation.

These changes require greater resilience from the grid and its supporting systems. One successful model of a resilient yet flexible system is the internet. Its architects designed it to withstand losses of network segments while maintaining functionality. As we work with global utility customers, we see that many utilities are beginning to rethink modern smart grid requirements. Emerging from this is an architectural construct to meet new divergent requirements while maintaining fundamental principles such as safety and reliability.

Similar to the internet, this modular federation of a microgrids architectural model enhances resilience as broadly as possible in any situation, even when segments of the electrical or information network are non-operational. In this context, microgrids mean interconnected sections of the grid intended to act with central coordination but able to function locally when reconfigured or even isolated by events. In urban and suburban areas, reconfiguration is more common, while in rural, island, and developing areas, subsystems may be isolated (electrically or from central data communications).

A key element of this transition is that both the electrical network and its supporting information network are becoming more modular. Each must be able to withstand reconfiguration or loss of central connections yet continue best-effort functionality in a safe manner. As the electrical grid becomes more dynamic, its supporting information network becomes more mission- critical. When isolated, microgrids can leverage peer-to-peer communication and distributed energy resources to respond quickly to changing local conditions.

This transition is evidenced across three classes: traditional distribution automation  devices, new grid-edge devices, and new uses of smart meter data.

For many utilities, deploying automated switch devices, such as reclosers, is a key first step in enhancing reliability and supporting reconfiguration. As they see increased traction in renewables, storage, and electric vehicles, many utilities are now deploying the second class of devices in greater numbers closer to the grid  edge to support greater resilience and possible isolation. These include line sensors, dynamic volt-ampere reactive (VAR) sources deployed at the service transformer, direct inverter monitoring/ control, distribution transformer monitoring, and pole sensors.

Finally, utilities are also finding new use cases leveraging insights from smart meter data in combination with the new grid-edge devices. We have customers using meter data for conservation voltage regulation–volt/VAR optimization as well as for condition-based maintenance of transformers and conductors.

The transition is also seen as utilities move toward unified software and data platforms for managing the increasing complexity of the grid. Such network platforms support both  existing and new classes of intelligent devices and software solutions that improve efficiencies, enhance system resilience, and enable new services.

Utilities have an opportunity to move toward a more modular, resilient, and flexible grid that harnesses a more diverse and distributed set of energy sources. This must be supported by a more modular information network. Combined, the new architecture, devices, software, and data network platforms are empowering the modern utility to meet these new requirements while maximizing value for their ratepayers. With collaboration and foresight, our industry is making real progress on this challenging journey.


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