MANY PEOPLE DON'T REALIZE THAT DESPITE THE TREMENDOUS HYPE OF the past couple of years, and the push toward advanced metering infrastructure and home automation, utilities have actually been adding intelligence to their distribution and transmission grids for a number of years. And they are making good progress. Several examples exist, such as the one at We Energies.


We Energies has led a consortium of utilities and vendors, working with the Electric Power Research Institute, in a project called Distribution Vision 2010. The project began in 2000. The plan is to bring distribution automation to another level by making the distribution system so automated that it corrects itself virtually without human intervention. The basic idea is to take high-speed, fiber-optic-based communications systems, overlay them on the distribution grid, and develop intelligent devices that can do the switching and adjustments remotely, using more than one pathway for the electricity- in effect, dynamic reclosing.

We Energies developed a premium operating district in a commercial area of New Berlin, Wis. This pilot project demonstrates a four-tier level of new switching designed to make the district virtually outage-proof. The system uses three different feeder lines to the district, thus incorporating the concept of a matrix. If one feeder is interrupted, the system automatically switches to another. The switching is designed to occur within four cycles of current. The four-tier system also ensures that each end of the traditional radial distribution system is treated as though it was the front instead of the back of the system. In 2006, a similar system went into service at BC Hydro.


Advanced supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and other systems- including some advanced geospatial systems-enable utility operations personnel and executives to see what is happening on the grid. Advanced artificial intelligence systems will enable them to see it in action, but with less concern about what must be done when something fails. Randall L. Smith, information systems and technical support SCADA, at Pacific Gas and Electric describes the process.

''We started implementation of automated sectionalizing restoration in July and have several of the configurations operational now,'' said Smith. ''What sectionalized restoration does, is when one part of the grid goes down, intelligent systems automatically reroute power and restore as many homes and businesses as possible without human intervention. In the past, all this had to be done by hand. Crews drove to the field and threw switches, or later they could be remotely thrown by system operators in control rooms. In the new automatic systems, computer systems with built-in rules and semi-artificial intelligence determine what needs to be done and throw the switches. This allows the utility to dispatch crews only to the specific points where human intervention is needed.''


In addition to these obvious smart grid projects, utilities are also experimenting with composite-core power lines that reduce sag in lines, thus reducing line loss and tree-trimming necessities. They are also working with companies that can read transmission voltages, sine curves and other characteristics from remote locations, reporting power condition and quality via various communications systems back to operations centers. Some of them are looking at 3D modeling techniques for construction and social networking to enable collaboration across all departments and communicate with the new generation of workers now coming on board.

Utilities have always been involved in advanced technologies and in the past built many of their own software systems, helping develop modern customer information, geospatial, work management and other capabilities. The industry has been slow-moving with regard to major change, but that is primarily because of regulatory environments. That does not mean utilities have not been exploring technological frontiers on the grid. In essence, the electric grid of today is not a 100-year-old dinosaur. Utilities are sophisticated enterprises that have specialized in any technology related to delivering reliable power to the public. And they will continue to make the grid smarter.