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Smart grid grows far beyond just smart meters

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The smart grid is slowly becoming a household name, as both customers and utilities around the world are beginning to see its many benefits through a number of trial and pilot programs, reports.

But as the term grows in popularity, its exact meaning has expanded to encompass several new technologies and methods. The most widely discussed is the consumer-facing smart metering infrastructure, which allows energy customers to monitor their energy consumption in real time and purchase electricity when it is cheapest.

While still revolutionary, smart meters are only a small fraction of what the smart grid has to offer, with some of the most important advancements occurring behind the scenes, according to the media outlet. These technologies ensure electricity is generated and distributed reliably and safely, and unlike meters, are meant to operate far out of customers' sights.

One utility in North America is benefiting from new smart grid technologies by introducing new devices to its 60,000 transformers across its service area.

"In the past we haven’t had any detailed information about how those transformers were performing – whether any were systematically overloaded or underloaded," said Richard Ford, manager of grid solutions at the utility, adding that it usually takes a call from a customer to learn about a failed transformer.

Nearly all of the utility's transformers are now outfitted with intelligent electronic devices that allow the utility to monitor exactly how much work the device is doing, allowing the company to establish proactive solutions before the transformer ever fails. With the new devices embedded in the infrastructure, repair times have been cut from 7.5 hours to 70 minutes, according to the news source.

The improvements will also be invaluable when it comes to integrating new, renewable energy sources into the grid, as wind and solar energy - which only produce electricity at certain times - introduce new complexities into grid management.

Smart monitoring systems have become so advanced that utilities can use them to keep track of the health of power lines in real-time. Sensors attached to power lines can alert utility control room operators of anomalous activity, and provide these workers with the data to assess the situation.

Automating the Grid

According to the news provider, utilities are also using feeder automation technology to improve operations. Feeders, which deliver electricity to large areas of homes and businesses, are often affected by unanticipated events, such as car accidents or storms. By installing automation technology in feeders, utilities can isolate any fault that occurs and restore it to service almost immediately.

One utility in Toronto has installed feeder automation technology on 10 of the most problematic feeders in the area. In one power outage in August 2011, the lights went out in the homes of 4,493 customers. When the automation technology discovered the fault in just one home, service was restored to the remaining 4,492 customers in under a minute.

"We’d like to see all of these technologies more widespread," Ford said. "What we’re doing today is making better use of our existing assets, getting more out of them by making them more effective and more efficient."

Although these devices offer data that can greatly increase utilities' operating efficiency, the huge amount of information and the need for increased security can lead to costly and time-consuming projects. SUBNET has developed software and solutions that enable utilities to securely access data from intelligent electronic devices regardless of what vendor they are from, and effectively manage to help a company function at its best. 

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