Utilities to ramp up technology investment in 2019


By Dan Agnew, general manager, Power Distribution at Eaton

2018 was an eventful year for the Australian energy sector. It featured many policy debates and media stories, most notable of all being the abandonment of the National Energy Guarantee. Public discussion has focused on Australia’s sustainable energy future – from power generation right through to residential energy storage.

The rising cost of energy coupled with the increase in awareness of Australia’s carbon emission targets means that more and more customers are opting for alternative sources of energy. This has also led to a palpable shift away from centralised power systems on a larger scale.

Rapid developments in technology and the rising popularity of renewable energy are opening the door to new and innovative energy delivery models. We anticipate that 2019 will not only continue with this evolution in Australia’s energy sector, but will also feature utility companies ramping up the investments in specific areas of technology.

Better quality data at a distribution level

Traditionally, when a utility performs a power system network analysis, it has been done at a transmission, sub-transmission or distribution level (11 kV or 22 kV). However, while managing the challenges associated with having more distributed generation in the power network, utilities have recognised a need for more accurate data at the lower distribution level. When armed with quality data, utilities can develop more detailed and accurate modelling – allowing more efficient and effective investment decision.

As a result, investments in sensor technology is increasing. Sensor technologies measure voltages and currents at different points of the distribution network, providing real-time data that allows utilities to better predict how the network is going to behave – predicting outages, locating faults and supporting distributed energy resources integration. This can help reduce the impact of an outage as utilities will be able to deploy teams faster to any disruptions.

The more sensors installed across a distribution network, the more accurate the data. This will pose a significant cost challenge for utilities (among other investment priorities). It is expected that utilities will undertake careful strategic planning to prioritise sensor investment – assessing what is adequate for key situations and how accurate the data needs to be to achieve efficiency or environmental outcomes.

In supporting the utility sector, power distribution suppliers will need to continue to strengthen engineering capabilities to advance sensor technology platforms and offerings, making them more accurate and easier to integrate into electricity networks.

Virtualisation of substation equipment

While not a new concept in the IT world, IT advancements are expected to drive more interest in virtualisation of substation equipment. While it is true that many transmission and distribution companies still prefer dedicated hardware with embedded software for their substation automation systems, many have started to look more seriously at substation automation systems in a virtualized environment as a way of delivering productivity benefits.

One major advantage of using virtualised technology is that it is not tied to a specific hardware platform. If hardware fails or the hardware has an inherent design deficiency, the utility can buy another computer and reinstall the software. From a lift cycle perspective, they can upgrade the computer and again reuse the software.

Substation automation systems of the future are closer than ever and have the ability to run multiple instances – for example, Gateway Data Concentrator, Human Machine Interface, IED Management Tools and Native Vendor Tools – all on one virtual machine. The flexibility that virtualised technology provides is a potentially huge advantage for utilities.

Like all new technological advancements, this presents a challenge to some power management companies in terms of their employee’s skillsets. While some have foreseen these developments and have been able to upskill along the way, others will struggle to find a person internally who is a field technician, protection technician, SCADA technician and IT expert. We expect that power management companies will notice an increase in demand in utilities looking at incorporating virtualised technology as they prepare their next review of the Substation Automation Standards.