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Three Ways Distribution Circuits Will Disappoint You - Part 3

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In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates said, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction." We are already seeing increased complexity in electric distribution circuits. If Gates is correct, we will see much more in the coming years.

Electric utilities historically operate their distribution systems in sections called circuits. This blog series looks at some important characteristics of the circuits of the future and how they may differ from those of the past and the present. These differences are acting to convert our familiar circuits into a network that relies on electronics and data for routine operation. Are you setting your system up for success in the face of these changes?

Part 1 of this blog introduced some fundamental differences between circuits and future networks. Part 2 examined why networks must be capable of being split into smaller parts. This final segment will consider the network's greater complexity and its need to handle rapid changes.

Greater Complexity

The sheer volume of electric system devices is going through the roof—microgrids, distributed generators, smart inverters, sensors, and automatic switches all bring greater complexity. These devices are more sophisticated than most of the circuit devices commonly in use today.

Arguably the most common device on a circuit today is a fuse—a skinny piece of wire that, as its sole operation, burns up! An important insight is to realize that most circuits, on their journey to become a network, are starting from a very low level of sophistication.

Sophisticated devices have more connection points, bypass functions, and test provisions. In addition, they are often configurable, integrate with communication systems, and exchange parameters with other devices and systems. These parameters help govern equipment settings, price signals, and protection from harmful conditions. Much of this complexity is linked to modern electronics that consume data in real time.

Smaller network pieces and sophisticated devices complicate routine operating decisions. Formerly simple manual operations, like opening an overhead pole switch, will be initiated remotely with the use of a new and vastly more sophisticated switch. Instead of simply verifying adequate electrical capacity and switching from one circuit to another, operators will need to understand how each of these changes affects the entire network.

I investigated several high-voltage accidents while working for utilities. Two of the worst injury accidents had their root cause in misidentified energized equipment. In tight spaces, like substations or underground structures, complexity brings the need for more equipment which takes up precious working space. More equipment and less space makes safe operation that much more challenging. To work safely, the data and information systems supporting these new networks must also accommodate their greater complexity and detail.

Rapid Changes

Traditional circuit layouts tend to be static, changing only for specific tasks or between summer and winter configurations. Dispatch and field personnel often have them nearly memorized. A gray-haired supervisor may confidently tell a new apprentice, "That transformer is on circuit number 121—it feeds from Buckingham substation up on the hill," speaking on the assumption that the circuit's characteristics remain constant.

Self-healing capabilities such as reverse power flow and the use of automatic switches and microgrids can all change networks rapidly and without much warning. They can alternate in response to different conditions in a short period of time. Traditionally, to alert employees, such changes are announced over the operation's two-way radios mounted in work trucks. Advanced network changes may occur with little or no human interaction, and without radio announcement. This real-time operating paradigm sparks different work procedures and safety concerns because such rapid changes were not normal in the past.

Staff are not used to their circuits changing quickly. They are accustomed to referencing their relatively static maps. Historically, a period of weeks to apply map updates was acceptable. But now, last month's map products from the Maps and Records division will be simply inadequate to meet the real-time operating needs of new networks. All users, in the office and the field, will need more detailed information in near real time.


Is there a time coming when we won't even think of circuits at all? Probably, but not in the immediate future. For decades, circuits were the only source of power to the distribution system. Today, every rooftop solar installation is another source to consider. The circuit at the substation may not be the only source on the network, but it will certainly remain important for quite some time.

Many of the standards necessary to implement a smarter network are still under development. Given all the forces acting to change circuits into networks, prepare for a continuous evolution of equipment and capability. When you don't know exactly what will be required, flexibility is a key strategy.

New functions will continue to be added, improving our ability to optimize distribution operations for power quality, cost, and reliability. Grid modernization and circuit evolution also mean a great deal of physical work, building networks and systems to support them.

Because networks of the future will be controlled with electronics and data, the underlying information models and systems will be foundational to success. Like Bill Gates said, "Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction." The ArcGIS platform is specifically designed to help utilities model and operate these new complex and rapidly changing networks.

For more information on how the ArcGIS platform helps electric utilities manage advanced networks, visit our site.

Esri, the global leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, builds the most powerful mapping and spatial analytics technology available.

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