Substation Automation’s Future is Now

By Jesse Berst

Earlier this year, I presented evidence that substation automation and other smart grid sectors were reaching a “tipping point.” I cited drivers such as NERC’s new reliability regulations; the increasing use of renewables and distributed generation; and years of deferred maintenance now coming due. These and other forces are compelling utilities to consider automation.

Public and private research programs are also delving into distribution and substation automation. EPRI has at least two relevant efforts, IntelliGrid and Advanced Distribution Automation. Likewise, Canada’s CEATI research program (which includes many U.S. and European subscribers) has an extensive Electric Distribution Utility Roadmap under way with the help of consulting firm Capgemini.

But utilities want to know more than what researchers and policymakers are saying. They want to see examples from other utilities-actual, functioning real-world installations. There is good news on that front as well. A growing number of utilities are instituting substation automation efforts. Here are just a few of the interesting projects in the works.

American Electric Power. AEP has a significant and highly regarded research operation, much of it focused around automation. One AEP executive told me that his firm simply could not afford to upgrade its distribution network using last-century technologies. They have no choice but to find cheaper, automated methods.

Hydro-Quebec. The Canadian utility’s distribution automation project is a roadmap for an intelligent distribution network, including the remote monitoring of equipment and lines.

Kansas City Power & Light. KCP&L’s “Delivery System of the Future” includes a variety of initiatives, including a smart grid effort. The first projects are already paying off with automated methods to locate problems such as internal wiring issues, defective transformers, temperature conditions and excessive switching.

Southern California Edison. SCE’s “Distribution Circuit of the Future” program is a forward-looking initiative that envisions a fuel cell coupled with an inverter to provide power, VAR support, or some combination.

TXU Electric Delivery. Dallas-based TXU is working with vendor partner Current Communications to transform TXU’s distribution network into the nation’s first broadband-enabled smart grid.

We Energies. Milwaukee-based We Energies leads the Distribution 2010 project. Other participants include Alliant Energy, AEP EmTech, Oklahoma Gas & Electric, Public Service Electric & Gas, and BC Hydro. DV2010 hopes to establish “premium operating districts” to provide multiple distribution feeders to high-priority districts. By automating the multiple paths, those districts would operate much like wireless mesh systems, with redundant paths for energy and much higher reliability.

Xcel Energy. Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy began in 2005 to implement Utility Innovations, a partnership with leading technology vendors to fully leverage information technology. Although the program embraces many aspects of the business, substation automation will be part of its future.

Europe marches forward. The examples above are North American. Increasingly, however, the true cutting-edge work is being done in Europe and the Middle East, with China not far behind. North America continues to lag. The IEC’s 61850 standard, for substation automation is just one example. I believe it has more headroom for growth and expansion than previous standards and it is catching on in Europe. Sadly, many U.S. utilities and vendors are reluctant to abandon DNP and other past protocols.

More information. It’s hard to produce long lists of web addresses in a print column, but if you e-mail me at the address below, I will send you direct links to anything you can’t find with a quick Google search. You can also access a series of smart grid case studies authored by my firm with support from the DOE and other sponsors. They are free for viewing, download or printing at

Whether you have been waiting for research, for real-world examples, or for case studies, you no longer have an excuse. Substation automation will be part of your future. The sooner you start studying your options, the better.

Jesse Berst is the managing director of GlobalSmartEnergy, a research consultancy that publishes Smart Grid Newsletter ( You can reach him at

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