Why the Future of Distribution Automation Depends on AMI

Distribution automation (DA) us crucial to grid modernization, according to some 90% of utility staffers who responded to a survey conducted by Zpryme, an energy-focused research company. And 90% of those survey takers also said DA would become even more important over the next three to five years.

Given the crucial nature of DA technologies to modernization efforts, you’d think utilities would be well along in their solution deployments. But, they’re not.

Although most utilities are enacting some sort of grid modernization technology, most are deploying it in a piecemeal fashion. More than half – 54% – of cooperatives are taking an incremental deployment route and so are 49% of investor-owned utilities.




A recent podcast featuring Kumi Premathilake, senior vice president of advanced metering infrastructure at Aclara, makes sense of recent findings from the Zpryme survey of utility personnel and offers smart advice for building the DA ecosystem.


An integrated approach is needed

In the podcast, Premathilake compares the incremental approach to DA taken by most utilities to a game of whack-a-mole, where as soon as one problem is solved, another pops up somewhere else. It’s common for utilities to use specific technologies for individual applications and, as a result, have several solutions that are not tightly coupled. Not surprisingly, just 21% of utility respondents said their DA applications are extremely or very well integrated.

“The execution [of DA] varies from utility to utility and it is more of whack-a-mole process. One of the reasons for this is that grid modernization has not been centrally planned and the applications have been mostly incrementally adopted as they offer value,” said Premathilake.

A better approach – one taken by only 25% of utilities – will find utilities charting out a comprehensive road map for DA investment. This would involve creating an inventory of existing, deployed technologies that can be leveraged as well as pinpointing where those technologies fall short.

“There’s a real opportunity to look at the problem more holistically and consider a more comprehensive approach to grid modernization. So now that the utilities have a vision, the next step is developing a roadmap to execute that vision. Utilities need to find partners who can help them execute that vision and that road map in a more integrated fashion. Also, since the market is so dynamic, utilities need to find solutions that are flexible and scalable that evolve with the future needs as well,” said Premathilake.

The road map should chart out how to integrate existing equipment and systems with the technology needed in the future. In addition, utilities should evaluate partners who can help them achieve the firm’s high-level vision. With these pieces in place, deployments can then progress in an incremental fashion with integration built into the process and timeline.


The right communications network is key

Communications is at the core of delivering greater automation, and it’s another area that needs some work before utilities can move ahead with DA plans. Power providers need networks with low latency, high reliability, and enough bandwidth to move sensor data and control signals quickly for grid-edge applications. They also need communications networks with the ability to prioritize critical applications.

Results from the Zpryme DA survey found that fewer than half of utility respondents feel their communication networks are well prepared for what’s next with distribution automation. A mere 18% said they were very well prepared.

As it turns out, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is a foundation for the grid visibility that will be so crucial for much of the automation utilities are implementing. Utility survey takers clearly know this, as AMI and the robust communications networks that are part of it were the number one technology investment named as “very important” by 55% of survey respondents.

Premathilake expands on the need for an appropriate communications architecture in the podcast.

“At the core of delivering greater automation and real-time control is the ability to communicate among the key assets on the grid. As a result, advanced metering infrastructure is a foundation for understanding what is happening on the grid, real time,” said Premathilake. “If you can read a meter on the edge of the distribution grid, you can read any other assets on the grid.”

But not all communication networks are created equal, so utilities need to evaluate AMI investments with an eye toward leveraging the network for DA as well.

“Distribution automation applications require ultra-low latency and the ability to prioritize critical application. So, when utilities are evaluating AMI and plan to leverage the AMI for distribution automation application, they also must evaluate the suitability of the communications architecture for current and emerging applications,” said Premathilake.

Here, again, we’re talking about looking at the big picture. Most utilities have multiple communications networks dedicated to various applications. In the years ahead, many of these applications will need to integrate to achieve the DA functions utilities are planning. That’s why it’s vital utilities now evaluate their solution set to determine how it can grow to accommodate emerging use cases during the next five or 10 years.

What works today must also serve the grid of the future, and it’s an ongoing work in progress. Understand the details. Download the white paper, Today and Tomorrow: The Distribution Automation Ecosystem.


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