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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Hugo Bashualdo

Hugo BashualdoHugo Bashualdo is an IEEE Smart Grid Technical Expert and an authority on electrundefinedic utility distribution planning in the new Smart Grid era.

In this wide-ranging interview, Hugo Bashualdo discusses some of the planning and engineering challenges utilities are encountering as they incorporate Smart Grid technologies into their distribution systems. He has advice for addressing voltage and power quality problems, suggestions for creating strong business arguments for Smart Grid applications, and recommendations for maximizing the value of pilot projects. He also emphasizes the importance of communications systems planning, reviews of working procedures, and safety training of technical personnel.

Question: You work closely with utilities that are deploying Smart Grid technologies. What are the most important challenges utilities are dealing with today, and how can they address these challenges?

There are many challenges, but let’s start with challenges caused by the integration of “noncontrollable” distributed generation resources—such as distributed solar photovoltaic technologies and wind—into the system. The integration of these resources can cause voltage problems. During mid-day when there is maximum output of power generation from solar, for example, the customer load is light and this can lead to over-voltage issues. Also, solar technologies can lose generation capability during cloudy conditions, leading to voltage sag issues. As a result, system power quality is compromised.

For utilities that are experiencing these issues, my advice is to conduct a very comprehensive study to identify where and under what conditions the power quality problems are occurring. The utility should then try to simulate some solutions for controlling the voltage. The study must go beyond steady state analysis to consider dynamic and transient electromagnetic effects. Based on the findings, the utility might implement dynamic or static VAR compensation. Today we have these two options for transmission systems and the idea is to apply the same approaches for the distribution system.

Another way to reduce the power quality impact is to deploy energy storage. Energy storage can be applied to compensate for the drop in solar generation when a cloud comes through or when there is a lack of renewable generation. To ensure effective deployment and use of energy storage, including each project’s size and location, utilities must perform comprehensive studies to identify and anticipate the renewable generation integration problems their storage systems will need to address.

Utility planners and engineers must also conceptualize their networks and systems in new ways as they evolve to Smart Grid. What types of challenges can this create?

An important challenge I’ve encountered is the tendency among distribution professionals to view power flow in one direction: from the source or substation down to the customer. They also use this perspective when planning for voltage regulation and protection coordination. But today, with the integration of renewables, we have bidirectional power flows and therefore voltage regulation and protection coordination should be based on both directions. Planners and engineers need to adapt to this new reality.

Separately, the integration of smart meters provides system visibility in almost real time and this very granular information will also influence how utilities conceptualize their planning projects. Real-time information introduces the potential to create distribution planning studies on monthly, weekly and even daily bases. It creates opportunities to perform distribution operation studies and enables utilities to conduct better-planned maintenance work.

In general, utilities will need to review the impact of their new Smart Grid technologies on their operational, planning, maintenance and safety practices and procedures. This is critically important, in my opinion, and a challenge all utilities must take on.

Distribution planners and engineers will also need to better understand how complex the system will be in the future. Many of these professionals will need to pursue training to update their skills.

How can distribution planners create strong business justifications for Smart Grid applications?

Smart Grid applications are new and we have yet to discover and realize many of their benefits. As a result, distribution planners often find it challenging to perceive and quantify benefits or risks when creating the best business cases to justify their Smart Grid applications to their public utility commissions.

Certainly Smart Grid applications are expensive but we have identified some very high potential benefits they can offer to a utility and its consumers in the medium and long term. A utility could be able to implement an application and still maintain or reduce the electricity prices without impacting its profits.

For example, Smart Grid applications can reduce energy losses in transmission and distribution systems. Since these losses are calculated into energy prices, customers could benefit from reduced rates when these applications are deployed.

Also, distributed generation and demand response programs can enable a utility to postpone installing new generation and transmission technologies, which is a substantial benefit. Other Smart Grid applications can reduce the number and/or duration of network outages, enabling the utility to sell more energy.

These types of benefits should be established in the business case. Distribution planners will need to work with transmission and generation planners to capture the full benefits across these systems. Distributed generation and demand response, for example, will impact transmission and generation systems so planners from those sides of the business need to understand and consider those impacts too.

How challenging is it for utilities to incorporate Smart Grid information technologies into their distribution systems?

There are significant challenges and they have significant impacts.

To give an example, utilities traditionally have understood feeder demand profiles for about 50% of the feeders in North America. For the remaining 50%, a technician would travel to substations to record feeder demand once a month, once every season or once a year. All related utility planning cycles, operational improvements and maintenance activities were based on yearly schedules.

Today, utilities are implementing substation automation devices and applications that enable the companies to closely monitor feeder conditions. The massive amount of information generated by these devices yields a better understanding of how the system is working and performing. The volume of information to be transmitted requires an adequate communications platform that must meet the needs of metering, protection and control, phasor management units, and other Smart Grid applications. There is not a unique communications solution available to serve all of these needs for all utilities. Companies will be required to conduct thorough studies to anticipate and determine their specific communications needs. Communications planning studies are “must-have” analyses in the Smart Grid era.

It’s important to note, as well, that once data is transmitted to the control center, specialized data management applications will perform analytics for asset management, operations and maintenance, planning, financing, and regulatory functions, for example. If a utility does not pay enough attention to its IT needs when it configures and deploys its automated system, all devices implemented in the field will gain little or no benefits from these applications. Again, proper communications planning prior to deployment is absolutely necessary to ensure appropriate Smart Grid performance.

How can utilities get the most benefit from their Smart Grid pilot studies?

Many utilities are implementing pilot projects. I recommend that they use their pilot projects not only to evaluate the technology of interest but also to evaluate the changes in daily operational procedures caused by the technology’s implementation.

For example, if a new element added to the system creates bidirectional power flow, utilities will need to change or revise their protection schemes. This will also require reviewing and adjusting operational, maintenance and safety procedures accordingly. Power line technicians will have to be trained.

It is also necessary for utilities to include communications planning when developing pilot projects. Many equipment vendors say their solutions include communications capability but this can’t be assumed. For example, after implementing distribution automation technologies that employ certain communications schemes, some utilities have realized they don’t have enough coverage in the deployment area therefore the distribution automation doesn’t work until a communications assessment is performed and a solution is implemented.

When planning microgrids, what are the most important strategic issues utilities should consider?

The strategic purpose for the microgrid is the most fundamental issue that a utility or developer must understand and it is the first thing planners need to address when preparing a case for a future deployment. Planners must ask these types of questions: What is the main driver for the microgrid? What does the envisioned microgrid need to achieve? Does the company want a microgrid to improve reliability or reduce the electricity prices or does the utility want to extend its electricity frontier to reach communities that don’t have energy today? What regulatory and legal impacts should the utility expect after implementing a microgrid? Will transmission and distribution improvements be deferred or avoided due to microgrid deployment?

Companies must also recognize the strategic role that communications technologies, generation monitoring and load controlling technologies will play in the microgrid’s implementation, operations, maintenance and performance.

What are the most important engineering issues to consider during microgrid planning?

Clearly, developers or utilities need to understand the load they will be servicing, including the characteristics of the critical and noncritical loads. It is necessary that they understand the potential capacity offered by renewable generation and generation options provided by other resources such as natural gas. And because they might use photovoltaic solar generation during the day, wind generation in the late afternoon or early morning, and storage at night, they also need to understand the optimal generation dispatch throughout the day or year. They should understand the role of the power system network and its limitations when switching from grid-connected to islanding conditions.

Developers and utilities also need to understand if the power system has enough capacity to handle the additional generation and the potential impacts the added generation might have on the grid’s power quality. Those are the basic issues engineers should focus on.

How important are safety procedures and safety training?

Managers must recognize that the key to success in Smart Grid is not achieved strictly by managing the costs and benefits of a technology investment. Success also requires taking serious account of the safety of utility personnel and customers.

Safety training is very, very important. Utilities must be proactive and start learning how to deal safely with new practices and concepts. In fact, utilities should review the safety aspects of every single planning, maintenance, engineering, operation and protection process so that when workers or technicians go to the field, they will know exactly what to do when they see new systems elements installed on the grid.

Hugo Bashualdo is senior manager, microgrid and distribution planning, for Siemens Power Technologies International. Previously, he was senior manager, Smart Grid consulting. Prior to joining Siemens he was a senior engineer in the transmission and distribution division of British Columbia Hydro in Canada. He has also held various technical leadership roles at Northern Lima Hydro in Peru.