Navigant Research Blog

Distribution Automation – A Virtuous Cycle?

Bob Gohn — November 29, 2010

In our recent “10 Trends to Watch” white paper, we identified distribution automation (DA) as the next smart grid technology to find the spotlight. This is further confirmed by Pike Research’s new Distribution Automation report, which forecasts a sizzling 33% growth rate for worldwide DA revenues between 2009 and 2015. It is worth taking a brief look at how this technology continues to evolve.

Long before “The Smart Grid” became the catch-all phrase for all grid automation technologies, sensors and communications were beginning to be applied toward reducing distribution network monitoring and operating costs. Distribution Automation was simply adding some remote control capability to far-flung devices. The power of this simple idea to significantly increase system reliability quickly became obvious, especially for utilities’ more troublesome feeders. Hence DA business justification shifted toward demonstrably improving typical reliability metrics (SAIDI and CAIDI). The technology incorporated more distributed, even autonomous, processing intelligence to speed circuit fault detection and restoration.
Today, even as reliability improvements remain a primary driver for DA, the ability to, in the words of EPRI, “operate these assets in an optimal manner,” is moving to the fore. Volt/VAR control technology is being used to impact system losses and even reduce overall consumption. Some utilities, including Progress Energy in Florida and the Carolinas, even see this technology as part of their potential demand response asset mix, tweaking distribution system operation to reduce peak demand in ways that are completely transparent to consumers.

The next challenge for DA systems will likely be the management of widespread distributed generation (DG) and plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) resources in the distribution network. While common-sense system upgrades of weaker transformers and other elements are likely to accommodate initial deployment phases, longer-term DG and PEV elements will need to be integrated with DA technology to optimize operation.

Perhaps the ultimate expression of DA will be a distribution network that autonomously balances local loads with intermittent local DG resources on a real-time basis, in harmony with the upper layer grid tiers, completely transparently to local consumers. Outside of some microgrid demonstrations, this may seem a long way off. However I was reminded of the possibilities during a recent discussion with Enbala Power Networks, who is working with ISOs to deliver grid regulation services via interesting real-time management of industrial and commercial demand. Though their type of service is not likely to be aimed at the local distribution feeder anytime soon, it is a clear reminder of the possibilities.

All this foreshadows a kind of virtuous cycle: DA technology initially aims at obvious reliability improvements, evolves toward efficiency optimization, comprehends distributed renewable generation and PEVs, and thus ultimately circles back toward assuring reliability in a brave new distribution network paradigm.
This may seem a stretch from current DA business cases, but perhaps not really that far!

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