By Jesse Berst
The Structure Group has one of the most interesting success stories. While other firms chose to emphasize AMI or testing or procurement, Structure stressed operations and implementation. Now that so many utilities are pushing distribution automation as the Next Big Thing, Structure finds itself right in the sweet spot. It has helped to distinguish itself by taking people with a strong technical background and training them on project management and other consulting skills.
Given that Structure has been such a pioneer, I thought readers might like to know what they think is next. And what utilities should do about it. I chatted at length with Alex Lago, Vice President Generation, Transmission & Distribution and Rafael Ochoa, Smart Grid Segment Lead. They warned me about the following six trends that are now on the horizon.
Embedded systems vendors are responding fairly well to the challenge, he says. But there are still a lot of serial communications devices out there, which are notoriously hard to secure. As a result, many utilities are moving from serial to IP-based communications.
Another challenge. Most server-based products run Linux. Most clients run Windows. That requires utilities to deal with patching, updating and securing two systems. The good news. Lago expects the security techniques perfected at the transmission level to trickle down to distribution networks.
Advanced distribution management systems (ADMS)
Several new ADMS offerings are now going into production. "There's a lot of hype about ADMS applications," Lago warns. "When they go operational we'll see whether they really achieve the benefits promised."
He recommends a cautious approach, waiting for early adopters to prove the value. When utilities do start shopping around, they should visit not just the vendors, but their clients as well, to see the system in real life.
"You really have to shop carefully," he emphasizes. "All the major vendors are now in the space, so you have many alternatives. It's up to you to define your requirements well and shop around."
Predicting the ADMS winners
With so many choices, how do you pick a vendor who's likely to be a long-term survivor. Rafael Ochoa advises looking at the origins. "Some ADMS systems came out of outage management systems," he explains. "Over the last few years, SCADA has become key aspect of the second wave systems Alstom, Ventyx (ABB), Siemens, and General Electric."
Ochoa believes those second wave vendors will come to dominate within the next five years. Why? Because of speed and scale. Because of distribution automation and its stringent requirements. And because of the sheer number of devices that will be hooked to the network, requiring a system that can handle massive amounts of data. Lago concurs, warning that distribution-level systems will typically generate 10-20 times the data as a transmission-level system.
Electric vehicles (EVs)
Although EVs still haven't taken off, Structure believes many utilities need to be analyzing their potential effect. For one thing, they need to understand if current overnight configurations will still hold up when multiple customers are plugging in their EVs for overnight charging.
"When a Tesla is fast charging it creates a 90 KW load -- roughly 40 households worth." Lago warns. As a result, transformers may not get the overnight downtime expected. Likewise, control rooms may need different staffing levels. Today, they have fewer operators in the late hours. "But in 10 years, it may be more like a Vegas casino, where things go on 24 hours per day."
Structure also believes third-party companies will arise to provide charging services. By aggregating many EVs, they may be able to supply services to the grid by controlling when the EVs do and don't charge.
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