Contributing to a smarter grid

photo of line worker

It’s a familiar scene: poles and wires stretching into the distance alongside a rural highway. This image might appear no different now than it did many years ago. But look more closely.

Invisible to most of us is an overlay of new equipment — chips, sensors and fiber — linking remote distribution infrastructure to the utility’s operations center using advanced communications technology.

Those iconic poles and wires are now part of a “smart grid” that can be operated using software and automation.

Here are some of the ways Capital Electric Cooperative (CEC) members benefit from a smarter grid:

• Fewer power outages. Most unexpected power outages are the result of faults caused by storms, wildlife or vegetation. A fault is an abnormal condition of the electrical system which disturbs the normal flow of the electric current. Nearly 80% of faults are temporary, due to a brief contact between a line and an object. In areas where overhead power lines more  frequently come in contact with trees or animals, blown fuses can be at minimum a nuisance or at most a major disruption. In an effort to save money and improve reliability, CEC is replacing traditional overhead fuses with TripSaver reclosers. These electronic devices can sense a fault and attempt to reclose the line to determine if the fault has cleared. If after one or more attempts the fault persists, the device opens completely, and crews are deployed. Devices like these, which can plug into existing infrastructure and change an event response from minutes or hours down to seconds, make a tremendous impact for members.

• Cost savings from increased efficiency and reduced outage times. Many new or evolving technologies are improving the efficiency of co-op operations— from reducing the amount of electricity lost in transmission to reducing the need for sending out trucks. These cost savings are passed on to co-op members. Electricity is transmitted at very high voltages and low currents to reduce heat and transmission losses. Transmission lines, which transfer electricity from the power supplier to the substation, require the highest voltage, as they carry power the furthest. At the substation, the electrical voltage is reduced to a lower voltage before being sent along CEC’s distribution lines. Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems allow CEC to monitor, gather and process real-time data from these substations. CEC has utilized SCADA systems for decades and is now upgrading legacy components to modern devices with greater functionality. With faster communication options, such as fiber optic connectivity, these devices can provide additional data points to help the co-op make well-informed decisions. Along the co-op’s lines hang fault indicators, devices that change color or illuminate when they detect a fault. In the past, these devices generally required a patrol to verify if the indicators detected a fault. Newer styles provide communication options that provide alerts in CEC’s control room, helping the co-op determine if an indicator detected a fault before dispatching crews to respond. By pinpointing faults early, response times and outage durations can be significantly reduced. At the end of the line, advanced electric meters have also resulted in increased efficiency. Today’s electric meters provide much more than kilowatt hour (kWh) readings. They can provide near real-time voltage and amperage readings for a service location, which can be very valuable in troubleshooting issues. By evaluating these readings, disturbances on the grid can be identified more accurately to deploy resources to the correct location. These readings also aid in outage response and restoration, being able to remotely check for power at meters instead of requiring physical measurements at each location.

• Pre-pay program. CEC’s pre-pay billing program relies on advanced digital meters to provide timely and accurate readings. Without this data, daily billing programs such as prepaid billing would not be feasible.

• Improved safety for co-op workers and the members. The data from smart technologies provide utility operators a more detailed view of what is happening on the electric system. Co-ops have found that the data can help them identify electrical
hazards faster.

Technology plays a big part in daily activities and decision-making. By comparing advanced meter data with SCADA information and outage management software, issues on the system can be identified and resolved  quickly, sometimes before a member calls to report an outage. Accurate, electronic system maps available on mobile devices improve project planning and outage responses. As components are added and enhanced over time, investments in system technology provide returns of
reliable service to members.

So, the next time you are driving down a long highway and you see poles and wires stretching into the far distance, know there’s more to that system than meets the eye. While the electricity in your home powers the toaster just as it always did, that electricity is more efficient, more reliable and safer thanks to innovation made possible by cooperation.


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