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The Heart of Distribution Automation? It’s the Brain

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DA technologiesAs utilities have ramped up distribution automation programs in recent years, it seems that use of the term DA has become fairly loose. EPRI has defined DA as “a set of intelligent sensors, processors, and communication technologies that enables an electric utility to remotely monitor and coordinate its distribution assets, and operate these assets in an optimal manner with or without manual intervention.” This definition correctly indicates that multiple technologies play a role in creating a distribution automation solution. Yet I often see individual technologies presented as complete DA solutions, when in fact they only form part of a DA system. Communication systems, automated switches, and sensors, for instance, all play important roles in enabling remote and automated control of distribution grid assets. However, none of these technologies on their own comprise a complete DA solution.

When a particular technology is portrayed as a complete DA solution, we also lose sight of the role that different products play in DA. As the industry reaches out to a broader, less technical audience in order to build support for smart grid investments, it’s more important than ever to accurately portray what different technologies can do, lest we build false expectations. In DA, sensors measure different characteristics about grid conditions and power flows, such as current and voltage. Communication devices like radios send data back and forth between grid devices, and from grid devices to centralized enterprise systems and utility personnel. Automated switches physically direct the flow of electricity, and as such are very important for delivering the “automation” of distribution automation. (It’s worth noting that the most advanced smart switches also include other technologies such as sensors, communication devices, and intelligent controls that direct switching actions, and actually can represent a complete DA package because of this technology integration.)

And software? Software is critically important because it ties different technologies together and makes DA applications work. Different types of software perform different functions. The true heart of any DA system, however, is the power systems software that directs actions of automated grid-based devices, and by this I mean the software behind applications like volt/var optimization and fault detection, isolation, and restoration (FDIR). Power systems software doesn’t just measure grid parameters, or send data to people or other devices. It provides the logic needed to make quick decisions about how to respond to grid conditions. As such, strong knowledge of power systems is needed to develop power systems software.

Power systems software is one of the most important technologies that a utility needs to select in developing a distribution automation system. I previously wrote about important factors to consider in selecting a smart grid supplier. These factors are especially important to consider when evaluating power systems software.

What technologies do you think are most important for a successful DA program? Do you agree that power systems software is critically important? Please use the comment form to share your thoughts.

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