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Killer App

Distribution management at the smart grid frontier.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2011

The computer bank at Oklahoma Gas & Electric isn’t quite HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey , but it promises to change everything. Equipment racks loaded with 100 computer servers are running the software for a new distribution management system (DMS). The system is still in testing, but OG&E hopes that once it’s deployed, the DMS (developed by ABB Ventyx) will be able to translate data transmitted wirelessly from field equipment into timely, useful information for the control room. It will give the utility’s operators the ability to look at the entire system’s configuration when performing fault isolation and restoration processes. It will add intelligence, considering the risks of overload before closing switches. And it will automatically execute a volt-VAR (volt-ampere reactive) optimization routine on a wide scale.

Bringing these capabilities all into one interconnected system represents a substantial advancement in smart grid infrastructure. But when the OG&E project began, planners didn’t see it as being particularly revolutionary. “We were under the impression that more companies had this [type of system] already,” says Scott Milanowski, OG&E’s director of grid intelligence. “We’re finding out that we were a little more on the leading edge than we had initially realized.”

The DMS implementation is being driven by the utility’s corporate strategy to defer the need to build any new fossil power plants until after 2020. With a growing market of just under 800,000 customers across Oklahoma and a small part of Arkansas, OG&E is tackling an ambitious goal. Although public attention has tended to focus on the sexier aspects of OG&E’s strategy, such as its plan to dramatically increase reliance on wind power, the utility’s DMS represents a major milestone in the development of smart grid infrastructure—and a harbinger of what’s to come for the industry.

Smart Grid’s Changing Narrative

Intelligent substation controls provide critical system data to an advanced distribution management system. (Photo courtesy Efacec ACS.)

Over the past year, excitement about the smart grid seems to have shifted somewhat, away from customer-facing technologies like advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and home energy management, and toward utility-centric distribution automation systems. Advanced DMS (ADMS) has become the hot new acronym in vendors’ marketing materials, and a recurring buzzword in companies’ presentations at trade shows. Many utilities, like OG&E, seem to have turned their focus away from smart meter rollouts and zeroed in on systems that optimize their distribution processes. ADMS is the core technology that can unite the various smart grid systems that have grabbed headlines in recent years, allowing utilities to start realizing benefits as soon as the technology is installed.

The advantages of a new distribution management system are clear for OG&E, but the challenge for many utilities is that ADMS represents a new technology that begs definition. Discussions about ADMS today easily wend into hyper-technical territory, or float into an abstract cloud that can make it difficult to understand what ADMS is supposed to do. Otherwise helpful analogies falter. Is it a heart? A brain? A backbone?

It’s

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