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Opinion | Prev


Automating power distribution

Alfred Manohar

WITH the focus shifting to offshore software development, the demand-supply gap in power is expected to grow by at least twenty per cent this year. The trend is expected to continue in the near future, with no significant generating capacity coming up in the country, giving rise to a spectre akin to the California power crisis.

It is thus imperative that power utilities look at increasing efficiencies in distribution networks, which have among the highest transmission and distribution losses in the world at upwards of 30 per cent.

In addition, the social pricing for rural and other sectors puts an increasing pressure on utilities to improve productivity as also reduce operating and maintenance costs to remain financially viable.

With IT courting telecom, the new millennium has leapfrogged into a revolution in networking and communication technologies to offer automation as a solution to improve distribution efficiencies.

Distribution automation is a tool for enterprise-wide management of an electric utility system. In other words, an ERP for an electric utility that, properly applied, provides for efficient operations, enhances operational outputs and translates into eco nomic benefits. Some of the initiatives in distribution automation include complete distribution automation, city power distribution automation, electric SCADA and distribution management for electric utilities.

Need to automate

Existing distribution systems have certain inherent inefficiencies due to their legacy. For one, most systems are monitored manually. This results in maintenance taking place only during breakdowns. The present system also does not ensure reliable and co mplete power system and usage information that can facilitate trend forecasting or help the utility in better analysis and planning.

At places, the billing systems are still unreliable. While the present system has intensive manpower requirement and over-dependence on experts, it is still a logistic nightmare to reach remote locations. Even trouble-shooting in case of breakdowns is ba sed on the conventional call system through telephone answering machines.

SCADA systems

Internationally, power generation and power transmission and distribution attract equal investments. In India too, in the last couple of years, utilities have started investing increasingly in various distribution automation tools for both cost reduction and service benefits.

One major tool available for power utilities is the Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. SCADA refers to a system that enables an electric utility to remotely monitor, coordinate, control and operate distribution components, equipment and devices in a real-time mode from remote locations with acquisition of data for analysis, and planning from one central location.

Today, no utility can afford not to have a suitable SCADA system to monitor and control its distribution network. Distribution automation through SCADA systems directly leads to increased reliability of power for the consumers and lower operating costs f or the utility. It results in forecasting accurate demand and supply management; faster restoration of power in case of a downturn and a quick, alternate arrangement for power for important/emergency locations.

The utilities are in a better position to undertake both active and reactive power management and with better anticipation of trouble and greater trouble-shooting through remote access. Predictive maintenance results in reduced cost of maintenance of pow er system devices, thereby extending their life.

Distribution automation through SCADA also reduces human influence and errors. It offers complete power system controls and data acquisitions in a central location, thereby assisting operators in faster decision-making for healthy power supply. It also e nsures reliability and quality of power supply (minimum fluctuation in voltage supplies) for the consumers. Automated meter reading for bulk consumers, who contribute major revenues, can check loss due to possible meter tampering.

Time ripe for automation...

For the first time in the country two State-owned electric utilities -- AP Transco, in Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu Electricity Board -- have undertaken to develop and install Distribution Automation system for Hyderabad and Chennai respectively.

The Chennai City Distribution system, covers over 95 stations spread over in Chennai. The system, executed by ABB, has been operational since November 2000 and was implemented at a cost of Rs 19.2 crore.

The Hyderabad installation integrates SCADA with DMS functions for effective monitoring and control of the electricity distribution network for the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.

Spread over an area of 1,500 sq km, the network comprises about 20 EHV stations and 110 33/11 kV stations, serving over a million consumers. With major part of the work complete, the system, supplied by ABB India on a turnkey basis, is expected to be ful ly operational by this month.

Even private sector utilities have started taking the first steps to use SCADA systems to optimise power distribution. BSES is in the process of modernising its existing system. The CESC has also installed a SCADA system.

...but there are hurdles

Although many utilities are talking to distribution automation vendors, this has not taken off the way it should have. There are two reasons. First, the cost factor. The cost of a complete distribution automation system for a major city is Rs 30-50 crore . However, utilities can put up a basic configuration instead of a customised solution and add features as the need arises and benefits are visible. This can address the issue of initial investment cost and also generate savings that can be progressively invested in additional features to create a complete system.

Another limiting factor could be the quality of existing communications network. Distribution automation systems require reliable communication media from control centre to field equipment -- through telephone cable, microwave, optic fibre, etc. In the a bsence of efficient telecommunications infrastructure, the creation of a complete communication system may add up to around 30 per cent of the total project cost. This may be higher in case of an optic fibre network. The implementation of OFC broadband n etwork by ASPs in different cities can help the utlilities to use it for automating distribution.

The future

There is an imperative need for solutions to optimise efficiencies within the existing system. Globally, distribution automation by utilities has shown that it pays for itself in a very short span of time.

Already, there is a growing realisation in India that SCADA systems will have a significant impact on distribution control applications and the way enterprises manage, or will manage, their business to stay competitive.

Quite of few of the SEBs and most of the newly formed distribution companies are increasingly looking at SCADA to provide solutions ensuring efficient distribution of power across their respective territories, despite financial and communications infrast ructure constraints.

Don't wait, automate!

(The author is with ABB India.)

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