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A flashover caused by vegetation on electric lines Texas A&M Engineering
Vegetation on electric lines can cause flashovers such as this one. Flashovers like these often ignite wildfires.

Innovation Needed Now to Fully Enable Tomorrow’s Distribution Systems

Communications, monitoring, DER integration and electrification need new technology

The traditional technologies used to support electric power distribution systems will not be adequate to meet tomorrow’s needs. These needs include a growing complexity brought about by distributed resources such as photovoltaics, energy storage and new energy utilization appliances such as electric vehicles. To meet future needs, innovation is needed in many areas, particularly in: communications, monitoring, integration of distributed energy resources (DER) and electrification.

Communications: In order to facilitate the evolution of the “Smart Grid”, the industry has developed a standard endorsed by the International Electrotechnology Commission (IEC) as specification 61850. While this standard is widely adopted in many parts of the world, it has not been so in the United States. Without using 61850, power systems lack the functionality needed to enable devices to communicate with one another. Unfortunately, the United States and Canada continue to adopt a less capable standard called DNP3, most widely known as SCADA or Distributed Network Protocol, as published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers as IEEE 1815. Innovation is needed to accelerate the North American power industry’s transition from this legacy system to 61850.

Monitoring: The growing complexity of power systems coupled with the increased sensitivity of consumer appliances and devices demands that the industry critically review system monitoring. In the devastating wildfires of California, a parade of self-appointed experts proclaims that “obviously” electric distribution systems are at fault for the fires. In reality, utility systems rarely cause fires. Unfortunately, utilities do not have the monitoring systems which allow them to bring real data to the debate to refute these spurious claims. To both identify the specific cause of fires and to help facilitate early warning systems which would alert first responders, low-cost fault analysis systems need to be deployed throughout power systems. A pilot of one such system has been developed by researchers at Texas A&M University. Called the Distribution Fault Analyzer (DFA), it can detect electrical disturbances caused by electric system components, system contacts with trees and fires themselves. Innovation is needed to enable systems like the DFA to be refined and deployed.

Integration of DERs: There is a strong need to marry the smart grid with DERs. Integrating DERs will help evolve the power system into a highly interconnected, complex, and interactive network of power systems, telecommunications, the internet, and electronic commerce applications. Controllers will be needed which will be designed to support multiple operational criteria, including analysis and response to electrical grid contingencies, pricing, and other market and system conditions. These controllers must allow for interoperability and flexibility to facilitate and enable competitive transactions to occur. However, only a few local controllers of this type, sometimes called microcontrollers, have been demonstrated. Innovation is needed to hasten these developments.

Electrification: Numerous studies have demonstrated a tremendous potential for expanded applications of electricity at the point of end use to enable the substitution of electricity to save overall energy use and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. These applications include converting residential, commercial, and industrial equipment and processes – existing or anticipated – from traditional fossil-fuel end-use technologies to more efficient electric technologies. Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, research and development on new and expanded use of electric technology which would replace fossil fuel technologies with electric-based technologies has declined drastically. Innovation is needed to expand the development of electric-based end-use technologies.

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