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A Health Crisis and a Modernized Grid

April 24, 2020
Self-aware technologies have become an important aspect of the smart grid's ability to operate under all unanticipated conditions.

It’s been said that electricity is the life blood of our society. Let’s expand that metaphor a little. That the life blood circulates through the electrical infrastructure of the grid because of the heart of the system, which is the people making up our utilities and their supply chain. If anyone doubts that, look at how this consortium responds to emergencies and disasters in general and the COVID-19 crisis specifically. They are telling our customers not to worry we will be there to keep the life blood flowing — heck it’s in our DNA!

Due to events and circumstances, the workforce has been divided in locations, but not in purpose. Some folks are working remotely, others are sequestered in operations centers and work centers, while others are in the field. Personnel are working 24/7 supplying power to those needing it. The big plus in this situation is seeing how the industry’s investments in digital technology are paying off in these critical times by helping everyone work together.

The keyword is flexibility. The modernization trend has digitized every aspect of the grid, increasing its interconnectivity with improved communications and computer based systems. These tech tools have combined informational and operational technology in the same toolbox to meet today’s needs as never before, but modernization didn’t happen overnight. The tale stretches back further than a lot of us realize.

Digitally Aware

Several decades ago visionary leaders saw the need for modernizing the grid. Truthfully, it’s an effort you might say started with energizing Pearl St. Station, and it’s ongoing, but in the 1970s the idea was the grid needed to be modernized to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Many experts were convinced future customers were going digital and the industry had to be prepared, which happened. There were those who also foresaw the need to make the grid more resilient, stronger and flexible by augmenting it with digital technologies.

Many articles, papers, and studies have been published supporting the reducing of personal field work as much as possible by using smart technology to locate the problem and diagnose that problem. They take this further by isolating the problem and getting the system back to normal without sending personnel out to do this work — sounds like a lot of the smart grid digital technology. In other words use smart grid technology to enhance the abilities of the women and men keeping the grid functioning to its maximum efficiency — part of that work smarter not harder concept.

A Wired Grid

Enhancing our abilities is a very important capability in today’s world, with COVID-19 menacing us now, and every tool that we can muster is needed. Today’s digital technologies are making the offsite working scenario not only possible but plausible. Add today’s high speed Internet connections, 5G communications, and Internet of Things (IoT), have produced many systems we are starting to take for granted, and that is a good sign. If people start taking sophisticated applications for granted, it means they are working as intended.

Obviously, the transition from an analog grid to our digitally smart grid didn’t happen quickly. It took time and a great deal of research and development not to mention a lot of hard work on the part of manufacturers, suppliers and utilities to make it happen. Older technologies like communications, control, sensing, computer science, and such needed to learn new tricks to bring all the ideas and theory into reality.

Then something truly amazing took place. To make all those systems, schemes, and platforms work and be able to take full advantage of the technologies’ potential, the physical world had to be transported to a virtual world. Before jumping that far into the process it’s probably a good idea to get a better understanding of the transition taking place to the grid.

Digital Building Blocks

At its inception, no one would have predicted where the evolution of all this digital building block technology has taken us. One of the first areas to see large-scale deployment of this amazing technology was the automatic meter reading systems introduced in the 1970s. Initially those devices were met with resistance from both sides of the meter, but its implementation has proven beneficial for all concerned.

Automatic meter reading morphed into the smart meter, which has led to applications such as dynamic load management, time of day rates, and net metering to name a few. It has also fueled a great deal of behind-the-meter applications such as customer owned renewables, smart homes, electric vehicles, and more.

The distribution network adopted its own digital building block awakening with smart switches and interrupters using digital sensors. These devices provided remote fault isolation and reduced customer outage time by speeding up restoration work. It wasn’t long until feeders were completely instrumented to monitor everything from the switchgear to the meter, which planted the seeds for demand management, distributed generation, and distributed energy resources to name a couple.

The transmission side of the grid had some digital technology deployments underway and the digital substation soon became a major focus worldwide too. The substation had some digital technologies like SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition), RTUs (remote terminal units), and PLCs (programable logic controllers), but the substation needed multifunctionality coupled with high speed communications and intelligent equipment interfaces.

By instrumenting power transformers along with power circuit breakers, instrumentation and intelligent instrumentation devices, self-awareness began to creep into the substation yard. It didn’t take long until sensors and transducers were integrated into every possible piece of equipment in the yard. They monitored the physical and electrical condition of the apparatuses, which resulted in asset management systems that included performance and health monitoring schemes. Once smart substations increased in sufficient numbers, self-awareness began to mean something, and advanced asset management platforms took a quantum step forward.

Even the transmission line got into the digital deployment game. A host of digital sensing technologies were integrated into the conductors, structures, insulators, and other components. All of these sensor provided a real-time view of what was taking place with the conductors and right-of-way. With the aid of powerful computers and artificial intelligence (AI) the data gathered was turned into real-time capacity ratings for the line, which in some cases can increase the capacity by 25%.

Putting It Together

All of these digital building blocks continue to evolve only to be tweaked further and combined with other applications making stronger and more innovative advancements. All of these technological advancements have proven to be critical in the trending grid modernization. Keep in mind, this is a grid that was originally built for simpler times when loads were defined by numbers of lightbulbs.

It hasn’t been quick or easy moving the grid into the 21st century, but these digital building blocks are doing it. The interesting thing about the whole process is the fact that no one visualized where this modernization process would take us. For many months now T&D World’s “Charging Ahead” segment has been exploring some the more controversial aspects of digital grid.

They are controversial because of their game changing nature, which maybe exactly what is needed as we move beyond the COVID-19, and we will — that is a given. The evolution of the digital grid proves we are an adaptive industry and the personnel are innovative. These applications are seen as having the biggest impact when they become commonplace on the grid.

The smart grid set out to redefine the industry, but these systems are redefining the smart grid as the process progresses. Interestingly, fields such as big-data, cloud-based services, high performance computing, and AI were developed in other venues, but have proven instrumental in the adoption of these controversial apps. These fields have a lot of solid science behind them, which led to some remarkable grid applications.

By combining the current generation of these smart grid cutting-edge technologies, it is possible to automatically adapt to changing conditions so prevalent and modify the grid as needed. When AI is thrown into the mix these apps take another jump in complexity, but they become more user friendly in the process. By user friendly, they can analyze grid data, learn from situations encountered, and take action without any form of human intervention. These abilities are making possible systems and schemes that were once thought of as science fiction such as virtual power plants, digital twins, and of course the autonomous grid, but they are not fiction. There are examples of all of these applications on today’s grid.

Smart grid technologies have been changing the grid for years, but the COVID-19 crisis is probably going to speed up the process. Some of these marvels are in their early stages, but once the technological genie gets out of the bottle it doesn’t go back. We are going to need all the technology we have in our changing world.

About the Author

Gene Wolf

Gene Wolf has been designing and building substations and other high technology facilities for over 32 years. He received his BSEE from Wichita State University. He received his MSEE from New Mexico State University. He is a registered professional engineer in the states of California and New Mexico. He started his career as a substation engineer for Kansas Gas and Electric, retired as the Principal Engineer of Stations for Public Service Company of New Mexico recently, and founded Lone Wolf Engineering, LLC an engineering consulting company.  

Gene is widely recognized as a technical leader in the electric power industry. Gene is a fellow of the IEEE. He is the former Chairman of the IEEE PES T&D Committee. He has held the position of the Chairman of the HVDC & FACTS Subcommittee and membership in many T&D working groups. Gene is also active in renewable energy. He sponsored the formation of the “Integration of Renewable Energy into the Transmission & Distribution Grids” subcommittee and the “Intelligent Grid Transmission and Distribution” subcommittee within the Transmission and Distribution committee.

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