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Substation automation to surge ahead by 2020

SUBNET Solutions Inc | Wednesday, December 12, 2012

One of the most important aspects of smart grid rollouts typically flies under the radar. While many people by now are familiar with - or have at least heard of - utilities deploying smart meters, even more are still oblivious to the vast changes that utilities are making behind the scenes to improve their operations, and in turn, customer service.

However, as these types of smart grid investments and projects grow in popularity among North America's largest municipal and state utilities, the benefits of these smart grid technologies, namely substation automation, will spread. In fact, according to a recent report from Pike Research, nearly 150,000 electric utility substations around the country are expected to be outfitted with automated devices and other grid modernization technology by 2020.

According to the report, this substantial growth will come as major technological developments converge and become tailored for the electric distribution industry, businesses show stronger demand for such systems and utilities begin to comply with regulations in place. Substations and the expansion of automated and intelligent electronic devices installed on such infrastructure will be a huge driver in the transformation from the current, outdated grid into the smart grid of tomorrow.

The research shows that by the end of 2012, more than 10,000 substations around the world will feature automated technology, which includes the construction of new substations and those that are retrofitted with automation at existing utility facilities. What's more, this number is expected to more than double to beyond 20,000 by the end of the decade.

If Pike's predictions hold true, there will be a net total of 150,000 substations around the world that were either built or retrofitted with automation, which will significantly help utilities maintain grid reliability and operate more efficiently.

"Key challenges such as outage management and recovery, increasingly complex system operations, and equipment management all suggest real growth in the coming years in the market for next-generation substation intelligence and data management," says senior research director Bob Gohn. "While the trend toward infrastructure modernization will continue, growth will inevitably begin to decelerate somewhat over time as automation technologies reach a high level of installed base penetration."

But even with such high volumes of installations all over the world, the technology used in substation automation isn't expected to cease evolving, the report noted. As the overall grid continues to undergo a revolutionary transformation, simple remote monitoring and substation control equipment will developed to better integrate within systems that can also leverage other smart grid technologies. This will support the proliferation of distribution automation systems, smart metering and advanced data analytics software used in utility control center. All of these, Pike stated, are currently in the earliest stages of their evolution.

The report also touches on the largest drivers of smart grid technologies and the most influential vendors in the industry. IEDs concerning SCADA, protective relays, sensors and communications sensors are also discussed in depth.

"Early automation systems reduced or eliminated the need to continuously staff larger substations by offering simple remote monitoring and control," Pike wrote in an executive summary of the report. "Today, substations are becoming key points of end-to-end smart grid instrumentation and automation."

Substation automation can deliver untold benefits to utilities, however if the technology isn't installed or managed properly, it can give rise to additional hassles. When utilities use multiple gateway devices to collect all of the data collected by substations IEDs, it can lead to lower efficiency and data gathering capabilities. But with SUBNET's Unified Substation Communications solution, utilities can perform data collection and protocol conversion from a wide range of disparate field devices and replace legacy remote terminal units with the most advanced server available. 

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