on June 21st, 2016

Substation design has changed over the years. Now, with the upcoming push for renewable energy, the technology that operates substations needs to keep up with the times or eventually just call it a day. The issue with old substation design? It tends to leave some people in the dark...for hours. Just ask Michigan. 25,000 people were recently subjected to power outages due to unknown reasons. The Executive Director of Public Affairs at Lansing Board of Water & Light Steve Serkaian indicated it was the age of the substation the utility was utilizing. 

"When you have a facility that's more than 50 years old, I mean, try driving a vehicle that's more than 50 years old," Serkaian said. That is really the only explanation that might describe most substation failures these days. He further went on to say, "Technology is not flawless." 

What do engineers do to guarantee substation design reliability? They build automated systems that can quickly restore power if an unplanned outage occurs. Some utilities use self-healing solutions that assist with some of the challenges they experience today. Newly automated systems have fault detection, isolation, and load restoration (FDIR). 

One of these automated solutions is available from ABB Group, who specialize in Automation and Power Technologies. Explaining FDIR, they write: "FDIR enables the utility to quickly identify the location of a fault, isolate it, and restore power during an unplanned outage by rerouting the flow of power on the distribution grid through, unaffected areas." 

EIT Stock Image Credit: Newton-Evans Research

But the question is, how many utilities have automated systems or reliable, new, technologies that ensure power continues to flow when an unexpected outage occurs? The answer is...not enough. The smart-grid future, some think is here, is a bit further away. 

According to Newtons-Evans Research, as of 2014, the number of fully automated substations is significantly lower to substations that have some automation. The number of substations to be built with full automation by the end of this year is also low. The situation is worse in third-world countries where the old technology of eras past is used to supply electricity to their respective towns and cities. 

Automated substations would ensure real-time data and analytics and is far more useful than the old substation technology that goes down without an indication of what caused the outages. 

The main issue with upgrading substations with automated technology is whether to replace the remote terminal units or just retrofit pre-existing RTUs in the utility. Replacing RTUs might not address the problems some utilities have and can be overly costly, so retrofitting solutions could be implemented. 

Miles Dupuis, an engineer from an electrical services company named Cleco Corp, spoke to Utility Products and explained the divide between replacing the legacy RTUs or retrofitting on the old technology. He indicated that there was no comparison between a full RTU replacement versus a retrofitted RTU system. He said: "Using a vendor that allows us to retrofit RTUs in one day while using only one person in the field is far less costly than what other vendors offer. Some solutions offer the option to replace old, outdated RTUs with replacements to modernize your substations ; however, it usually takes three people and two to three days to complete the task, at a much more significant cost." 


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