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Grid, Heal Thyself

Automation technologies promise a reliability revolution.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2010

human trust and control can make utility workers understandably nervous. It’s not just a matter of resisting change, but a matter of line worker safety. The new systems should be as simple as possible, and workers will need time using simulators to get comfortable with the new approach. “When there’s feeder reconfiguration in place, depending on the solution and the communications, sometimes they might have to do much more complicated things than hit one of three buttons,” Piel says. The last thing a lineman needs during outage conditions is an unfamiliar or complicated interface.

Progress Energy’s Harrison expresses certainty that when workers are trained on a self-healing system and understand how it will react, they will adapt. She recalls when the utility’s distribution control center first started telling linemen to go to a location because the outage would be in the vicinity. At first, line workers doubted control room operators’ ability to pinpoint the cause of an outage, and they’d say, “I’m going to have to ride this line out.” Then the accuracy improved so much that the linemen stopped questioning it. “Today if for some reason that information isn’t available,” Harrison says, “they get upset. ‘What do you mean you can’t tell me?’”

Winning hearts and minds is one of the project goals for SmartGridCity in Boulder. Xcel’s Huston says that the utility wants to take smart grid from being a pilot that could go away and turn it into business as usual. So far, he reports, the systems are performing as anticipated. “Our operations people that use them on a daily basis have become the biggest advocates for new capabilities.”

Making the Business Case

High-speed Internet took years to become a reality. Likewise, self-healing grid applications will require significant investments for testing and implementation. “The industry is moving from manufacturing techniques it has known for 100 years, and a grid that largely consists of copper, to a grid that is increasingly silicon-based,” says EPRI’s Kamath. The overall processor power and storage capacity needed could cost a great deal, and therefore investments must deliver measurable benefits in order to win the approval of ratemaking authorities ( see “SAIDI and the Self-Healing Grid” ).

Huston views self-healing grid not as any standalone initiative but as part of a larger picture. He compares the business case with local area networks (LAN) that originally had to be justified by a single project when they first came out. “It wasn’t until it was recognized that the LANs were not a just a cost but a means to unlock much greater value that the real productivity was achieved,” he says. “The same is true with the smart grid, and one benefit of that will be self-healing capabilities.”

CenterPoint Energy currently collects a surcharge approved by the PUC in Texas that it uses to support a 12-year investment in its AMI system. If CenterPoint can demonstrate its advanced distribution management system works, the plan is to return to the commission to seek approval for a system-wide deployment. Mercado says the business case is clear. “We have to