Distribution utilities brace for increasing network complexity

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By Don McDonnell, CES International

Industry experts have heralded the imminent and widespread adoption of alternative power technologies for years. As we move into 2002, it appears the dial is now leaning more toward “when” rather than “if” this prediction will come to fruition.

The timing of this much-anticipated technological emergence is of critical importance to distribution utilities. They, after all, will be charged with melding these new technologies into existing electrical networks. This promises to be a challenging assignment, one that will inevitably increase the complexity of managing an already-complex network.

So just how far along are utilities in developing programs to manage the advent of new power technologies such as distributed generation, embedded generation, generation power parks and micro grids?

To find out, we polled delegates re-cently at advanCES, CES International’s annual customer conference. This year’s event drew some 170 engineering managers and executives from more than 50 industry companies. About 75 percent of this group work for utilities serving more than 350,000 customers, while the other 25 percent work for smaller utilities and cooperatives. The survey results afforded us a first-hand snapshot of how some of the world’s most advanced utilities are preparing for the emergence of new power technologies.

Rapid growth of complexity

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Of those surveyed, about 65 percent said that over the next five years, the complexity of operating their electric distribution systems would grow “very rapidly,” while 18 percent predicted the complexity would grow “somewhat rapidly.” Only 18 percent said the complexity would grow slowly.

Similarly, respondents largely agreed that the operation of their electric distribution system would become more “dynamic.” A full 84 percent said that over the next five years, their network operation would become more dynamic, while 3 percent said less dynamic. Thirteen percent predicted no change.

We strongly agree that the processes associated with operating electrical distribution systems will grow more complex and more dynamic. The principal causes of this increase in complexity are rooted in a number of trends, including deregulation, performance-based ratemaking, privatization and guaranteed service contracts. In essence, these market forces are pressuring utilities to compete based on customer service, power quality and reliability.

Formal strategies lacking

The survey also revealed that while utilities had coordinated approaches to such technologies as substation and distribution automation, there are still a number of technologies for which utilities have not formalized corporatewide strategies. For example, a high percentage of respondents said they either had no strategy or were not sure if their utility had a formal strategy for new power technologies, power parks/micro grids or embedded generation.

This result is not surprising. Many new power technologies are only now maturing to the point where they can be considered for integration into our nation’s distribution frameworks. We believe, however, that if we were to do this same survey in a year, the answers to the readiness question would change dramatically.

Although many of the respondents said they did not have a strategy for new power technologies, respondents strongly agreed-88 percent-that there would be significant value to having a coordinated approach. However, respondents were split when asked if they were aware of commercially available tools that support the coordinated management of the above-mentioned technologies. Results showed 45 percent were aware of such tools, while 42 percent were not. Thirteen percent were not sure.

These results also are not surprising. The systems that will enable a coordinated approach to managing these technologies are only now under development. Indeed, we believe the operations-management system of the future will, by necessity, morph into an “energy delivery management” system that acts as a central nervous system for a utility. With the aid of these systems, utility network operators will leverage these systems to tune and balance their networks based on real-time requirements for reliability, security and economy.

Without such an approach to managing the distribution network, the widespread adoption of new power technologies, both inside and outside the walls of customers, will be prohibitively difficult and costly. Conversely, rapid adoption of a central energy delivery management system will pave the way for a more efficient distribution network that benefits forward-thinking utilities and their customers alike.

McDonnell is vice president of marketing and alliances for CES International. For a copy of the complete survey and results, please contact him at don.mcdonnell@ces.com.

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