Oncor shares DMS lessons


When people outside the energy industry think of smart grid, they often see little more than wires and poles. But utilities know that operating the grid is far more complicated than simply sending power through a line and into a home or business. There is a whole host of problems that can occur between the substation and a customer's home -- some of them incredibly subtle. So subtle, in fact, that neither utilities nor the customer may know a problem even exists.

Grid management is becoming exceedingly important to maintaining reliability.

If utilities can't see the problem, they can't fix it, which is why utilities are beginning to turn to advanced distribution management systems (DMS). These systems use the influx of smart meter data and new analytics capabilities to help identify -- and even fix -- problems before they occur, eliminating the need for truck rolls and streamlining utility operations. They also help with voltage and load management to expedite outage restorations or avoid them all together.

Knowledge as power

To this end, Oncor has been successful using Siemens' Spectrum Power Distribution Network Applications to help control load and streamline utility operations. Just this year, Oncor began integrating the system with its advanced metering network. The utility shared some of its experiences and lessons learned in this area at a recent conference hosted by the Utility Analytics Institute.

"We are on the precipice of a huge mountain of data," said Eileen Brannon, Director of Performance Management for Oncor. "Here, for the first time, we are going to be able to combine some things that are going to make sense and we are going to be able to push measurements to another level."

This is especially valuable for ERCOT and the Texas grid, which face significant load management challenges. Part of this stems from the fact that renewable power from wind is most plentiful in Texas when demand is at its lowest and can die with little notice. Compounding the problem is the reality that replacement power from gas, coal and traditional combustion sources can take a long time to come online.

There are a whole host of problems that can occur between the substation and a customer home -- some of them incredibly subtle.

But beefed up data analytics can curb these issues by giving the utility advance or near real-time notice of service problems.

"The meter calls in just like the customer calls in," said Phil McCrory, Director of Oncor's transmission and distribution services, adding that they are now starting to ping meters to investigate outages.

McCrory said that Oncor practices annual load shedding in preparation for these challenges, which can mean significant reductions in electricity capacity.

Prioritizing grid health needs

Oncor has also started using smart grid data to improve its operations and deliver energy that is not only reliable, but efficient. Oncor is capable of tracking more than 300 metrics with grid data, and was able to distill it down to five core categories, noted Brannon.

"We eliminated a lot of the day in and day out stuff," she said. This avoids the utility becoming bogged down with an influx of data and allows employees to take a step back before deciding which data really deserves to be examined in closer detail.

"Before, it didn't make sense because [employees] had no ability to track data. Or if they did track it, they had no ability to record it electronically," Brannon said.

McCrory confirmed the difficulty of managing such large amounts of data, which is further held back by an aging feeder and switch infrastructure and a lack of low-latency communication links for transporting data across the grid. In many cases, the data is out there for the taking but cannot be delivered due to needed infrastructure upgrades.

But he too anticipates benefits of Oncor's focus on data analytics.

"Getting the real data and real values is really, really difficult, but I think the payoff will be large when we complete that," he said.