Distribution Automation-the Value-added Dimension of Smart Grid Deployment

A Manhattan power outage is visible on the Williamsburg Bridge after Hurricane Sandy.
A Manhattan power outage is visible on the Williamsburg Bridge after Hurricane Sandy.


With the massive damage rendered by Hurricanes Sandy and Irene, flood and ice damage and blackouts, it’s impossible to ignore the growing need for widespread adoption of smart grid technology.

Most energy analysts agree that successful smart grid deployment hinges upon distribution automation. Various distribution automation solutions exist for the nation’s smart grid. Currently, distribution automation focuses on reliability technologies such as fault location, isolation and service restoration (FLISR)/fault detection isolation restoration (FDIR)/auto sectionalizing and restoration (ASR) and fault locations, voltage and reactive power control such as volt/VAR optimization (VVO)/integration volt/VAR control (IVVC)/advanced volt/VAR control (AVVC), conservation voltage reduction (CVR), intelligent asset management and distributed generation and electric vehicle integration.
Among electric utilities, co-ops and municipalities, some of the main distribution automation projects include volt/VAR control, automated switching, integration of distributed energy resources, asset management and distribution automation, which focuses on grid optimization. The current utility infrastructure, however, will be unable to support the electric grid as new electric vehicles and distributed renewables come online. Upgrades will be required to enable utilities to monitor and control feeders and substations, which will create systemwide coordination.


Utilities across the U.S. expect to grow their renewable energy portfolios dramatically during the next 10 to 20 years. In the distribution automation field, VVO, volt/VAR control and CVR projects are gaining traction among U.S. electric utilities and becoming part of their smart grid road maps. The purpose of this form of distribution automation is to maintain acceptable voltage levels along the distribution feeder. The objective is to improve efficiency by reducing technical and nontechnical losses through voltage optimization. The current system is highly inefficient; losses average 6.35 percent. Improved efficiency would allow utilities to reduce electrical demand, energy consumption and losses. VVO also enables utilities to manage customer power quality better and allows utilities to integrate renewable energy.

As more electric vehicles come online and the demand for distributed energy increases, utilities will need widespread deployment of volt/VAR control to support renewables, energy storage and increased demand. By reducing voltage 3 to 5 percent, utilities will be able to deliver voltage at a lower level within an acceptable range. Many utilities are operating on inaccurate models and rules to estimate peak demand and determine when to turn on and off capacitors, load tap changers (LTCs) and voltage regulators. One way to improve the voltage profile is through real-time monitoring of feeder lines. Efficient and accurate end-of-line sensors could provide utilities with real-time data to respond effectively. Such devices would enable utilities to detect voltage quality and pinpoint regulatory problems.

There are many driving factors for distribution automation. Reliability is at the forefront of these and drives utilities to upgrade the grid with distribution automation equipment. Other key drivers include regulatory requirements and incentives. Distribution automation will reduce lost revenue from outages and improve customer service. During the past several years, weather-related disasters have shown utilities need a more efficient system for addressing and pre-empting outages and reducing recovery time.


Issues could be resolved through distribution automation, but there have been several barriers to the conversion, including lack of incentive for utility providers. An investment in distribution automation would benefit customers, but there also must be some benefit for utilities. Distribution automation can mitigate outage costs, with the implementation of end-of-line devices to monitor voltage. These devices can track flaws in the system and prevent outages by pinpointing trouble spots. Other barriers to conversion include regulatory bodies, disparity between distribution systems and consumer hesitation, largely because of a lack of smart grid understanding.


The benefits eclipse most barriers to large-scale acceptance of smart grid technology. Distribution automation allows monitoring and lowering of the voltage profile, which benefits consumers and utilities. Many consumers are unaware their personal electronic devices could last longer as a result of receiving lowered voltage. Utility customers also benefit from a reduction in power consumption, which decreases their electric bills. Utilities benefit in numerous ways, including the efficient distribution of power, improved use of equipment and overall better performance during peak load. VVO will help utilities meet new and upcoming mandates for lowered greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emission levels.

Some utilities face new regulations to reduce energy consumption in the coming years. Through more efficient equipment use, utilities will reduce their product waste from early product failure. Reduced reception of voltage also benefits the utility provider. Minimizing the number of movements to LTCs, capacitors and other devices will optimize the life of equipment, and reducing peak demand through VVO enables utilities to reduce additional investment in infrastructure.

The driving factors for volt/VAR projects are efficiency-related. Electric utilities have been in the spotlight for customer outage and downtime issues. Providers have been the target of criticism for overspending on repairs and restoration of power after flooding, ice storms and hurricanes instead of spending on prevention. In addition to high repair costs, utilities have faced tremendous fines for insufficient responses to weather-related catastrophes. If utilities were to implement end-of-line monitoring devices, local utility stations would be alerted to outages earlier and would be able to pinpoint flaws and isolate problem areas, pre-empting the costly repair cycle.

This also would alleviate the long wait times and high-call thresholds required before sending a truck to investigate and reduce wasted time and money spent driving around trying to determine the source, cause and location of trouble. Utilities would enjoy increased revenues from faster outage recovery, and customers would be back online sooner and yield fewer complaints. Another benefit is in lowering the amount of VARs generated, which reduces the demand on generation, increasing grid capacity. The lowered demand allows utilities to reduce power generation and helps meet goals or mandates for sustainability and lower greenhouse gas and CO2 emissions. Another factor is justifying implementation of distribution automation projects. In the volt/VAR area, utilities can analyze the change in hourly circuit load to determine how much energy will be saved by reducing losses. The energy savings from lower losses provides value for utilities, customers and the environment. Utilities’ savings come from the value of energy and additional capacity. Customers reduce their consumption with lower voltage, and the lowered CO2 emissions help maintain a cleaner, greener environment. Energy efficiency targets are being set in most states, and volt/VAR programs can help utilities meet these demands. Volt/VAR also improves power factor and reduces transmission congestion. Implementing volt/VAR enables utilities to implement other technologies such as circuit reconfiguration, fault anticipation and fault location at a much lower cost. Volt/VAR provides a base to build upon.

Asset management is another growing area of distribution automation. Utilities are asset-rich in organization, which they need to optimize. Utilities are facing aging infrastructure, especially in transformers. The aging work force is another driver for asset management. Many utility providers still use condition-based maintenance, but transitioning to a smart grid requires advanced asset management in the form of substation controllers, intelligent electronic devices and sensors. Using transformer-monitoring systems will allow utilities to monitor transformers in real time. Devices such as IUS Technologies’ VTMS100 will provide utilities with this type of solution. The cost of transformer-monitoring systems can be expensive; however, the VTMS is a low-cost solution ideal for utilitywide implementation.

Grid optimization will depend upon multiple variables, distribution being key among them. Improved distribution components are in development, including IUS Technologies’ VS series of smart sensors. As more energy technology companies introduce their discoveries that hone the factors of voltage control, accuracy and cost efficiency, the focus on distribution automation becomes apparent. Solutions are available, and ironing out the smart grid’s current kinks will require cooperation through implementing these solutions.

Scott Zajkowski is manager of marketing and business strategy at IUS Technologies.

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