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Grid, Heal Thyself

Automation technologies promise a reliability revolution.

Fortnightly Magazine - March 2010

give [customers] a reliable delivery of electricity 24-7,” he says. “We want to provide high quality information that is integrated with electricity.” That means, post-storm, letting affected customers know precisely how long—or short—the wait will be.

Progress Energy, meanwhile, made a business case for its DSDR system by showing that advanced intelligence on the feeders significantly reduced the load at peak times, delivering 310 MW of demand response to the system. “That will be harder for our customers to see because when they switch on the lights it doesn’t change anything,” Progress Energy’s Harrison says. “But they’re getting tremendous value because we’re not having to build plants.”

While self-healing capabilities will require sizeable investments, SEL’s Roy Moxley highlights an advantage to using distributed intelligence. “Computer technology can lower the cost,” he says. Microprocessor devices, like retail computers, go down in price over time as their speed and capabilities increase. Installing self-healing control devices might even be a bargain in cases where it would cost more to replace old mechanical components with newer versions of the same thing.

Further, self-healing applications potentially could ease the process of integrating mandated renewable power sources into the grid, making such investments an easier sell in rate cases. Some of the same features that make the system more robust and easier to restore after an outage can make it more capable of responding to variability in renewable generation. “That’s where automatic reconfiguration and other processes will come into play,” explains Enspiria’s Cornish.

Relying on the Smartest Grid

Progress Energy’s Harrison eagerly anticipates a smart, self-healing grid that incorporates electric vehicles, battery storage, and photovoltaics, giving the industry opportunities to come up with new value propositions for customers. “For those of us who have been in it for a long time, it’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s going to fundamentally change how we do business.”

A convergence of assets on the grid will mean that utilities aren’t just reacting to problems, but using technology to anticipate them. “You can look at a voltage waveform, detect anomalies in it and say ‘that looks like a cable failure coming in five or six days time,’” says Siemens Energy’s Edmonds. “Before a fault occurs, you’ve got a crew out there to fix it and replace that part of the cable.” One day cables might even be able to fix themselves ( see “Meet the Cable of the Future” ).

Edmonds adds that 10 years down the line he envisions a grid that intelligently integrates accurate real-time weather pattern data and local generation into an automatic decision-making process. “You see [the grid] becoming more flexible, being able to automatically configure or to be able to configure in such a way that it’s ready for a storm and has got spare capacity and switching capabilities,” Edmonds says. “It will recover itself much quicker and in much more of an automated fashion.” In times of extreme stress, such as a hurricane, affected areas would seamlessly decouple from the grid and then start reconnecting—and getting reconnected—when the worst is over.

That’s the long-term goal for