Solar panels, electric cars and computer hackers might not seem to have much in common, but they’re all making big changes in your electric service. These things have electric utilities talking about the substation of the future. If everything goes according to plan, you may never even know about those changes, says Tom Lovas, a technical liaison and consultant with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
“The traditional model of generation, transmission and distribution is kind of being turned on its head,” says Lovas. “In the past, power flowed to a substation and then flowed out to the consumer. The substation now has become a point of information and interconnection, and it’s coordinated in a different way.”
Here’s how substations work
That mass of wires and equipment you see behind chain-link fences as you drive along freeways or side roads basically turns high voltage electricity into lower voltage electricity that can be used in your home. Electricity generated at a power plant gets “stepped up” to a high voltage at a substation because that’s a more efficient way for power to make the long-distance journey through transmission lines. When the current gets close to where it will be used, another substation steps the voltage down, for distribution to you and your neighbors.
But that straight-line path for electricity is changing, says an international industry group planning for how the substation of the future will fit in with the power lines and power plants that make up the electric grid.
“Rather than continually getting bigger, the grid is now increasing in intelligence,” says a 2016 strategic plan for the Centre for Energy Advancement through Technological Innovation (CEATI). “Customers are increasingly looking for ways to manage their own energy, customizing how they use it and serving as suppliers of energy.”
One example of customers serving as suppliers of energy is the fast-growing number of homeowners installing rooftop solar panels. Today, electricity doesn’t just flow from a power plant through a substation to a house. Instead, electricity also flows in the opposite direction, from the house back onto the grid, as homeowners sell excess solar power back to their utility.
When power flows in both directions, running a utility gets a lot more complicated. Lineworkers need to be sure they know which wires are energized and which are not. Electricity traveling in a different direction could put new stresses on old equipment. And utilities need new ways to monitor electric current, so they can keep track of new patterns of electricity use and generation.
Lovas cites an increase in electric cars as another new addition that could change electricity use as people charge their vehicles at a variety of times and places.
Will substations be able to predict power outages?
Information about where electricity is coming from and where it’s going can help improve operations in the utility network, making the substation of the future an important part of what the utility industry has been calling the smart grid. For example, information collected at a substation could keep track of how transformers are performing so they could be replaced before they fail – or even recognize power use patterns that could predict an outage.
“We collect zillions of data points of information,” says Lovas. “What we’re trying to do is make sense of what that information is telling us.” Figuring out how to analyze and use all that data, he says, could improve safety, reduce outages and their durations, and reduce maintenance costs.
This information also can be stolen or misused by cyber criminals, so the substation of the future needs stronger data security. Beyond this, Lovas notes that substations need protection against more old-fashioned attackers such as vandals and copper wire thieves.
Lovas also expects the substation of the future will respond to concerns about what substations look like, by looking for more remote locations or planting trees around them. Underground substations could offer better security, as well as avoid complaints about the appearance of the collection of wires and other equipment.
When will we see the substation of the future? Maybe never, if it’s hidden. Or, since improvements and advancements are already being installed, maybe it’s already here.
“I don’t think there’s any defined date when the substation of the future takes over,” says Lovas. “It’s just a natural progression of things.”
The substation of the future is already being built, in the state of Washington
The Seattle City Light Denny Substation will operate in an historic urban district with the latest electrical equipment, but it will look a lot different from any substation you’ve seen. For example, instead of chain-link fencing around an imposing collection of wires, transformers and switchboxes, a sloping wall will hide the structures housing the equipment. Outside the substation will be pedestrian walkways, artwork and even a leash-free dog park.
Work on the site started about a year ago, and the substation is expected to be energized in mid-2018. You can monitor its progress on a live webcam at www.seattle.gov/light/dennysub/livewebcam.asp.
New patterns of power mean a new job for a utility workhorse
For decades, substations have had a pretty simple job: raise the voltage of electricity at the power plant for efficient transmission over long distances, and then lower it so it can be safely used in your home, farm or business. Here’s what’s driving plans to revamp the way substations work.
Electricity flowing in both directions
Rooftop solar panels and other sources of electricity allow customers to sell excess electricity back to the utility.
With non-utility power producers putting electricity onto the grid, extra precautions need to be taken so workers in a substation know which wires are energized.
These days, high-tech equipment can do a much better job of monitoring electric current and how it’s being used. Learning how to analyze that information could reduce outages, manage electricity more efficiently and report when equipment needs to be replaced before it fails.
As substations increasingly become data centers, cybersecurity will be a major part of planning. More traditional threats are also being addressed, including vandals, copper wire thieves, and critters (like birds and squirrels) that can chew wires and damage other equipment.
Not everyone likes the looks of a substation, so planning includes looking for more remote locations, planting trees around them or designing attractive walls so they fit better into the look of a neighborhood.