Distribution Automation, Then and Now

By Michael A. Marullo

Historically, utility industry practitioners have associated distribution automation (DA) with the real-time data acquisition and control component of the electric utility distribution network. Over the years, however, DA has quietly morphed into what has become a vortex for distribution application integration. Today, DA is increasingly the place where distribution applications come together, and utilities are beginning to focus more attention, and notably, more deliberate investments of time, money and other resources in that direction.

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Although there have been a few cases where DA has forged ahead without benefit of the traditional cost/benefit analysis, most DA projects failed the laugh test when it came to economic justification. Recently, however, some otherwise unrelated developments might have given DA the boost it needed to become a true mainstream opportunity for utilities and suppliers alike.

Indeed, even as DA languished, the technology improved with each passing year. Products that might have otherwise gotten off the drawing boards, shall we say, “not quite fully cooked” under other circumstances were given time to mature, often under the scrutiny of rigorous testing during pilot projects.


Modern RTUs with onboard digital signal processors and advanced communications accept AC inputs directly and offer a range of connectivity options, including wireless and, increasingly, IP addressing for web accessibility. Photos courtesy Hathaway Corp. (left) and Metso Automation (above).
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There are many examples of these “evolved” products, including so-called “transducer-less” remote terminal units (RTUs) capable of handling direct AC inputs without costly intervening instrumentation; smart meters with a wide range of integrated data analysis, manipulation and reduction techniques as well as new communications capabilities; and the emergence of economical “in-situ” power quality analysis devices, in some cases accommodating power quality, RTU and meter functionality all in a single device.

At the same time, significant strides in communications technology coupled with plunging microprocessor and memory prices have had a positive impact on the financial and technological feasibility of DA applications ranging from switch, breaker and capacitor controls to sophisticated time-of-use (TOU) metering and load management strategies.

And, finally, standardization efforts-almost non-existent when DA first became an issue-have had time to evolve and take hold. Among other things, standards evolution created an environment for real-time distribution applications to become more compatible with their historically estranged information technology (IT) and telecommunications counterparts. This newly established common ground has been helped greatly by the EPRI-sponsored common information model (CIM), which now has been embraced by the work of key committees within IEEE and IEC, as well as the MultiSpeak initiative of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

In addition, some otherwise unrelated events have had a profound impact on DA, both financially and technologically. Perhaps the best example was the Year 2000 scare. Amid panic that utility bills (among other things) would forever be in a state of unbridled chaos, a very different-and quite unexpected-outcome of the Y2K solution would forever change the DA landscape in two fundamental ways.

This unexpected “Y2K factor” was precipitated by the decision among a number of utilities to upgrade their customer information system (CIS) platform as a least-cost means for mitigating the ubiquitous Y2K costs in staff time, capital and other resources. By doing so, they paved the way for a level of data integration most utilities previously considered neither technologically nor financially feasible.

Besides fixing Y2K issues, these necessary investments in CIS served to blunt the financial impact of other DA expenditures that most utilities had been reluctant to undertake. Before the Y2K problem came into focus, the notion of spending millions of dollars on IT infrastructure was not a priority for many distribution operations. However, besides replacing long outdated “flat file” databases with contemporary relational database technology, Y2K solutions also crashed through the psychological barrier that, at least in some cases, had kept utilities from seriously considering such investments.

But, that was then…

Over the past decade, DA has evolved from a diminutive set of applications with largely unproven and hard-to-justify benefits into what is now an exciting and expanding dimension of the utility automation marketplace. Indeed, many a DA pilot system was announced with great fanfare as a foundation for the future, only to be summarily unplugged after the proof-of-concept demonstration. But that was before deregulation made its way into our vernacular and during an era when most utilities were unwilling to make significant investments in distribution.

Rather than examining in detail why utilities resisted investing in distribution for so long, suffice it to say the reasons were generally not for lack of available technology or appropriate solutions, but instead revolved around difficulties in adequately quantifying return on investment. Part of that obstacle was almost certainly rooted in a widespread perception of the distribution business as an expense rather than as an investment opportunity. Another key factor was the inability of suppliers to recognize the overwhelming need for a strong business case reaching beyond clever technical solutions.

As deregulation has continued to spread and ratepayers increasingly become true customers, the need for DA has risen in the utility consciousness, with many utilities gaining a new appreciation for the term “customer service.” The reason for this heightened customer focus is becoming crystal clear: Distribution is where the utility “touches” the customer. Moreover, if customer service is to be a priority, then new infrastructure must be added to meet the challenges of this redefined marketplace.

Distribution automation RTUs are one area where dramatic technological changes have taken place since DA first started making headlines as the next great market opportunity. Twenty-some years ago, most distribution networks were not ready to accommodate even the limited automation tools of the day since much of the instrumentation was still tightly integrated into the electrical apparatus itself; power and communications options were limited; and RTU packaging was often too cumbersome for pole-top or distribution line applications. As one industry veteran once put it, “The cost to properly instrument a distribution (facility) for an RTU would be prohibitively expensive, even if the RTU were free!”

And, this is now…

After years of gradually modernizing the distribution infrastructure, the edict to “Do more with less” continually underscores the combined effects of downsizing and mergers occurring across the utility marketplace. This means increasing levels of DA investments will be needed to offset declines in staff resources-and especially the brain trust-being lost through this ongoing reduction process.

Today, attractively priced, highly refined and thoroughly tested DA products exist in great numbers and varieties, which allows DA investments to pay increasingly measurable dividends. For example, next-generation RTUs are able to accept AC inputs directly, eliminating the need for expensive external current and potential transformers needed by earlier generations. Moreover, power and communications versatility has improved while overall size and power consumption have diminished along with prices. While not yet achieving “free” status, it is now possible to obtain full-featured distribution RTUs for less than $2,000 in relatively small quantities. During the next two years, those prices are expected to dip below $1,000 as the costs of microprocessors, memory, ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) and other components continue to fall.

Standards evolution is also affecting the DA market, especially as relates to communications compatibility issues. Among the most popular protocols are the “de facto” standards: DNP 3.0 and Modbus. Besides having achieved their status by broad acceptance and usage (i.e., rather than by edict or guidelines handed down from on high), both protocols have proved quite versatile and effective in an array of applications.

On the horizon, however, is a new generation of standardization initiatives. Even with the formal adoption still as much as two years off by some estimates, Utility Communications Architecture, version 2.0 (UCA 2.0) has already gained a significant following that includes a user group with a growing membership. Several EPRI-sponsored demonstration projects based on the seven-layer OSI (open systems interconnection) model eventually led to UCA 2.0 being conceived and elevated to its present status by the International Standards Organization and a plethora of suppliers, users and consultants.

Despite having its detractors, UCA 2.0 may prove to be just what is needed to achieve cross-vendor plug-and-play compatibility-an outcome that could have a profound market impact. So far, it looks promising, with some suppliers already touting “UCA 2.0-compliant” products despite the absence of a formally adopted standard.

Whether or not UCA 2.0 proves to be the panacea of protocols, one development seems fairly certain-that is, migration to Ethernet as the communications discipline of choice and the addition of Internet protocol (IP) addressing for RTUs, meters, recorders, relays and a steadily expanding range of other automation devices. In the future, Web-enabled, IP addressable devices will likely proliferate as costs drop and the financial returns from DA investments become more readily identifiable and understandable.

In the near term, the business case for DA investments will likely be easier to make in areas where deregulation is already in place-or at least on the horizon-while the trend toward enterprise application integration promises to add to the demands placed on the DA infrastructure across the industry. No longer just a future vision, the time to take advantage of the large and growing array of proven DA products specifically designed to meet the wants, needs and expectations of utilities and their customers is now.

Mike Marullo is CEO of cfar International Ltd., a New Orleans-based technical marketing and business consulting firm as well as a founding principal and Director of Strategic Research & Development for the InfoNetrix Market Intelligence Information Service. He can be reached by phone (504) 466-3465 or email (mam@oncfari.com) during normal business hours (CST).

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