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Three Ways Distribution Circuits Will Disappoint You - Part 1

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One afternoon in engineering school, my professor boldly proclaimed, “Nothing has changed in power engineering since the 1930s!”  He knew that even the most advanced electrical devices of the time were controlled by very simple things like springs and magnets.  He wanted us to be solidly grounded in the underlying laws of physics, and my resulting education served me very well.  In contrast, the circuit networks of the future will be controlled with electronics and data, often managing the springs and magnets inside devices.

Can you imagine a professor making that statement today? Such a professor would certainly be out of touch with the utility business. In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith describes the necessity for successful people to make changes to further their success.  Successful utilities, and their circuits, will need to adapt to a dynamic world to be relevant and successful in the future.

Electric utilities typically operate their distribution systems in pieces called circuits or feeders. This practice served the industry well for many years. However, more than a few changes occurred since my university days in the early 1980s.  At that time, I didn’t have a computer or cell phone, and wrote term papers on an electric typewriter. This blog series will look at some important characteristics of the circuits of the future and how they may differ from the past and present. Like never before, data and information systems will be an integral part of operating future circuit networks.   How is your utility preparing to successfully operate the electric system of the future?

Given the changes in our business, the very term “circuit” could become confusing.  For clarity, I’ll call the future arrangement a network, rather than circuits.  The interconnected electric system is sometimes referred to as the largest and most complex machine on Earth. Historically operated as circuits, the network may become a utility’s most important asset, capable of enabling new business models and greater customer value. Rather than a one-way circuit that delivers electricity to customers, the network will have to become a market place for many more participants.

To avoid disappointment and become a market enabler, the network of the future must have some fundamental key differences – it must be divided into smaller pieces, have greater complexity, and change more rapidly than we are used to.

1 - Smaller Pieces

Sections of circuits are optimized simply to isolate system problems and supply large blocks of customers. Utilities, and in fact all users, will need the increased flexibility of smaller pieces to accommodate an exploding range of possible operating conditions brought about by all types of additional network devices.

2 - Greater Complexity

The sheer number of devices is increasing dramatically -  micro-grids, solar panels, sensors, electronic controls, all bring greater complexity.   A simple fuse, in service and undisturbed for 30 years, will be replaced by a sophisticated switch with an electronic controller communicating with the network. Its complex operation is based on the actual operating conditions as they exist right now! The complexity will usher in new challenges in recordkeeping, workforce development, maintenance, operation, and troubleshooting.

3 - Rapid Changes

Self-healing capabilities, reversing power flow, automatic switches, and smaller pieces, will all require networks to change rapidly.  Changes may occur with little or no human interaction, and may bounce between multiple states in a short period of time.  When things change quickly, they become a safety concern.  A pile of paper circuit maps is wholly inadequate to safely operate a more complex and rapidly changing network. Engineers and line workers alike will require near real-time information to operate the network safety and effectively.  

Near real-time information drives and enables better optimization of the entire system to reduce costs, enhance reliability, and improve power quality. A customer’s equipment, needs, and choices will also affect familiar circuits in many new ways.

Wrap up

Industry changes will require our beloved distribution circuits to be much different in the future.  The array of new utility devices offered in the marketplace is dizzying and trade articles regularly detail pilot projects dramatically altering the traditional distribution circuit layout. 

Because networks of the future will be controlled with electronics and data, information systems will be the foundation to operating these networks. The electronic model of the network will be central to all core business functions.

All the change drivers relate to the new network based on their exact connection points and location.   The ArcGIS platform gives all stakeholders the ability to access and share critical information, including the network model. The ArcGIS Utility Network Management extension is specifically designed to address the needs of a more complex and variable electric network. 

My professor, with his 1930s thinking, would be shocked how much power engineering has changed. He would be surprised at how inadequate classic circuits will be to safety support utility operations in a few years. How long will it take before circuits change into networks?  In some locations, the shift has already begun. The ArcGIS platform is designed to help utilities operate these new networks.

For more information on how the ArcGIS platform helps electric utilities model advanced networks, visit our site.


Pat  Hohl's picture

Thank Pat for the Post!

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