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The convergence of key technology developments, stronger business cases and growing regulatory acceptance is accelerating grid modernization. Substations and the increasingly automated and intelligent gear embedded within them are poised to play a critical role in this transformation.

According to a recent report from Pike Research, a part of Navigant's Energy Practice, more than 10,000 substations worldwide will have been automated (including both new construction and retrofits of existing facilities) by year-end. That number will surpass 20,000 annually by 2020, the study concludes, leading to a cumulative total of nearly 150,000 substations automated or retrofitted from 2012 to 2020.

The role of substation automation
Contrary to a popular and publicized notion, the smart grid is about so much more than just smart meters, the report notes, and behind the customer interface are other technologies supporting power delivery. These include automation, power electronics, and data management to enhance the transmission network; power distribution systems; and the vast system of substations joining the two.

Within the typical power grid, the substation has a set of indispensable roles and, arguably, unique responsibilities:

- The substation network serves to transform voltage, both stepping up and stepping down, numerous times in numerous locations, as needed for the safe and economic transportation and delivery of power to customers.

- The substation serves as a sophisticated junction box for power flow, breaking one path into many as needed, safely isolating paths for maintenance or repairs, managing energy as needed through reactive power regulation, and facilitating power rerouting in the face of outage situations, the report says.

Given these critical jobs, the substation is unsurprisingly home to a great deal of very expensive gear, including large-scale power transformers, circuit breakers, switches, capacitor banks, a network of protective relays and many others, says Pike Research. This equipment must, in turn, be protected from assaults such as fault current surges when the system periodically breaks down due to extreme weather events, equipment failure and/or related anomalies.

Pike Research expects substations and the increasingly automated and intelligent gear embedded within them to play a critical role - along with the transmission network and power distribution feeders - in supporting an increasingly dispersed, diverse and distributed system of generators and customers as time evolves.

The key challenges of future power delivery will include the following:

Outage management and recovery: Occasional outages are a fact of life for an infrastructure exposed to weather, accidents and acts of chance; they can never be fully eliminated, the report says. Improved intelligence, real-time information quality, and automated repair/recovery schemes can go a long way, however, toward limiting both the scope and duration of future outages. The potential for automation technology to vastly improve system performance during outages is enormous, but realized only to a limited extent today, the report adds.

System operations: Power system operations in the future will become increasingly more challenging because of both growing complexity and unpredictability, according to Pike Research. More sources of generation, more uses of generation in unfamiliar time patterns, and much less control over both will demand a much finer and faster view of the power system in real time so that operators - or their automated proxies - can intervene effectively to keep the system stable. Load balancing, voltage management and reactive power needs will all require more careful management and faster, more complete information access.

Equipment management: According to the report, protection of equipment under fault current surges has always been the primary mission of the relay network in substations. In the future, Pike Research believes this mission will likely be expanded to include real-time condition monitoring and maintenance planning in lieu of using increasingly scarce staff time. Such automation of key maintenance functions will boost reliability and save resources.

Substation automation market

All of the aforementioned issues suggest real growth in the coming years in the market for next-generation substation intelligence and data management to support increasing automation for outage recovery, operations support and equipment management, according to the report.

The widespread automation of substations and other grid elements started years ago, long before the term “smart grid” came into use, Pike Research notes. The basic building blocks for automation readiness - modern intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), peer-to-peer data sharing and communications infrastructure - are already being deployed widely. What’s more, this has been going on in many areas for at least the last decade, the report adds.

This first phase of automation growth seems to be, in part, attributable to technology maturity factors - e.g., the evolution of standard approaches to peer-to-peer communications - and the accompanying cost reductions. There is also inevitably an element of natural evolution in this process, Pike Research continues. When old gear wears out, it is replaced with state-of-the-art components because there simply is no “old” gear on the market anymore.

Looking ahead, Pike Research says it is confident that growth in the substation automation market will continue worldwide. The trend toward infrastructure modernization - multifunctional IEDs and state-of-the-art communications architectures - has momentum and critical mass.

However, the report says growth will inevitably begin to decelerate somewhat over time simply because there will be fewer substations needing modernization. Even as more substations are automated as part of overall grid-modernization efforts, the nature of this automation will continue to evolve. Basic remote monitoring and control of substation equipment is evolving toward more integrated systems leveraging other smart grid technologies, such as distribution automation systems, smart metering, and advanced data analytics software within utility control centers. Nonetheless, the report notes that these more integrated uses are still in the early days of their evolution.

For more information on Pike Research’s report, click here.

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