Pennsylvania’s Large-Scale Pilot Project
- Written by Steve Gelatko
The initial focus is on improved distribution management in the area around Harrisburg. Ultimately, monitoring devices and wireless communications will be installed throughout the utility's operating area to improve reliability and efficiency and allow for more flexible and capable management. The U.S. Department of Energy, which has provided support for the project with funds from the 2009 stimulus bill, is being kept closely informed of progress.
PPL Electric Utilities serves a 10,000-square mile area of central and eastern Pennsylvania with 40,000 miles of power lines and 1.4 million customers. Those customers, ranging from rather traditional farms to high-tech industrial plants, all count on having a reliable electrical supply to serve their sophisticated 21st century needs. Yet PPL, like utilities throughout the United States, is still meeting those demands with a power delivery grid from the 1950s and '60s.
Thanks to $19 million in stimulus bill funding that PPL obtained from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2009, we are starting to put in place the electric delivery system of the future. With technical support from Drexel University in Philadelphia, GE Energy, Alcatel-Lucent and Lockheed Martin, we are initially focusing on 60,000-plus customers in a two-county area surrounding Harrisburg, the state capital.
We expect to complete the Harrisburg smart grid pilot project this summer, with hundreds of electronic devices, a new distribution management system and dedicated communications systems that will work together to improve service, reliability and system operations.
We've already seen examples of how distribution automation and smart grid technology can reduce the length of outages for customers and help utility crews make repairs more quickly in the project area. With all its new capabilities the system will also better regulate voltage levels and enable the connection of wind, solar and other renewable power sources to the grid.
Ultimately, PPL plans to install distribution automation technology in close to half of our service territory in central and eastern Pennsylvania by the end of the decade.
The smart grid technology we're using in Harrisburg is best described as having three parts: a brain, a body and a nervous system that connects them.
The brain is the new distribution management system that integrates numerous operating programs. Constantly monitoring, analyzing and modeling real-time power flow for operators, it will vastly improve their situational awareness and provide many decision-making tools.
The body consists of nearly 500 electronic switches, relays and other automated devices installed along the distribution network in strategic locations. The devices constantly gather information from local circuits—so as to identify a flaw or fault in a circuit, for example—and instantly respond or act based on remote commands from the utility control center. Capacitors will better regulate voltage of the power traveling on the circuits, improving power quality—which is more critical than ever in today's digital era—and saving everyone money.
The nervous system features high-speed communications equipment that connects the parts. PPL has built a fiber-optic loop that connects ten area substations and the distribution management system. Newly installed wireless communications towers permit communication from substations to devices in the field.
Together, these three sets of technologies help and complement the work of system operators, line crews and other employees. For example, identifying the exact site of a system fault can be a tricky task, especially in the rural areas that comprise much of our service area. The smart grid helps us narrow down, in a matter of seconds, the area where we need to send a crew to make repairs. That saves time and fuel, and helps us restore service more quickly.
As a result, our homes and offices may only experience a mere blink rather than a power outage when equipment fails, a tree falls on an overhead line, lightning strikes or a vehicle accident occurs. The equipment being installed today in the Harrisburg area will mean local consumers will notice fewer service interruptions and appreciate better power quality.
At a high level, we will be tracking the number of interrupted customer minutes we will be able to avoid each year. As we roll out new phases and capabilities of the distribution management system, we will be able to reduce the number of minutes interrupted. When the system is fully operational, we expect the number to be 1.5 million smaller per year in the Harrisburg area.
As this technology is rolled out in other regions of our operating areas, the distribution management system will serve a similar function to its role in the Harrisburg area. And it will provide additional flexibility and management capability in all parts of our 29-county service area.
Finally, the smart grid will improve our ability to connect renewable energy sources to the grid, an area where we are seeing increased demand. More than 1,000 distributed generation sources such as solar installation and wind turbines have been connected to PPL's grid in just the past two years. Due to environmental considerations, more investment in renewable energy can be expected in the years ahead.
Smart grid deployment is only one aspect of PPL Electric Utilities' plan for improvements to its critical transmission and distribution infrastructure, which also will include replacement of antique lines and upgrading of local substations, among other things.
Over the next five years, our company expects to invest $3.6 billion to address aging infrastructure, improve local facilities to meet increased demand and enhance reliability. We are working to stay ahead of the game through prudent investments, such as replacing equipment before it fails, rather than being reactive and only responding to problems after they occur. For instance, we are doing engineering work on a distribution automation project that will serve about 70,000 customers in Monroe County in the Poconos region. This technology will be installed over the course of next year.
We are working this year to publicize the benefits of smart grid technology in Harrisburg and elsewhere. Industry studies have shown that customers are largely unfamiliar with the smart grid and its benefits. It is our mission to provide them information and examples that show how our smart grid investment will make a real difference.
The job of delivering reliable power and meeting customer demand gets more complex each year. At PPL Electric Utilities, we're embracing technology that helps us keep pace with and anticipate the needs of our 1.4 million customers.