System Controls Department is Essential To Reliability

Visual of D.A. (Distribution Automation), used to identify and isolate faults on the lines

Technology is an interesting thing. For many people, it is both impressive and intimidating. It represents the new and exciting, as well as the unfamiliar and unknown. But one thing is for certain: it is essential to the success of Delaware Electric Cooperative’s efforts in providing our members with consistent, reliable electricity. For example, on May 31st, Delmarva Power dropped transmission to DEC’s Meredith Substation. What could have been a major outage for members within that area was seen by most as only a small flicker in power or a brief outage, all thanks to the Co-op’s use of technology – a self-healing system called distribution automation (D.A.). D.A. identifies faults on the lines and works to mitigate issues by backfeeding loads to the nearest operational source. This keeps the lights on while line crews and the dispatch center work with the system controls department to identify and solve the problem.

According to manager of system controls and dispatch Brittany Wagner, D.A. works by pinpointing the fault, which could be something as simple as a tree branch on a line or as complex as a car accident that’s taken out an entire pole. It then isolates the fault, so the majority of the system remains unaffected. D.A. achieves this by “talking” to the various pieces of equipment in the field through communication devices set up by system controls. It then sends that information back to DEC through SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition), which collects the intercepted data and formulates a report of how substations and other equipment are operating. While the two systems perform entirely different individual functions, they work together to create an ongoing dialogue between the Co-op and most of its assets.

“They work very closely in that they tie together, and they have to be maintained and updated,” Wagner says, “but D.A. is the one that does all the hard work, the labor if you will, and then just tells SCADA what the final result is so it can report out to us.”

Wagner’s goal is to have DEC’s entire system automated by the end of next year.

If D.A. is the eyes and ears of the grid, SCADA serves as its voice. Which means as system management analyst, it’s Rick Kinnikin’s job to listen.

“Mostly my job is keeping track of alarms, seeing what’s going on,” Kinnikin says. “Then I let Brittany know and then I let the transformer shop know what’s going on so they can fix it.”

Typically, the next step is for dispatch to assign a crew to the issue. Even this process has been streamlined by the use of automation technology. This allows the Co-op to save time without taking shortcuts, so members are still receiving quality service and are without power for shorter periods of time.

“We still ride the lines, we still get the trucks to go out there, but we can pretty much pinpoint where the issue is and what’s happened,” Kinnikin says.

Wagner agrees, noting that her department’s ability to see and solve many possible problems that can occur on the lines is more than an internal benefit.

“Overall, having more visibility to the system does help reliability,” Wagner says. “It’s better for our members. If an accident occurs and emergency dispatchers call, we can drop a circuit without having to ride a crew out to the scene for safety. So overall, just that visibility and being able to see and do more from here to make our reliability time faster and make it safer for anyone out there on the lines, is just a better overall result.”

Over the past decade, Wagner and Kinnikin have seen system controls, and the technology they utilize, develop in ways it’s almost hard to believe. According to Wagner, the main communication device when she started at the Co-op was a landline phone system, which provided often unreliable service and was only capable of contacting substations directly. Only five of the substations utilized D.A. Today, system controls is working to ensure as many DEC devices and equipment as possible have communication capabilities.

“We’re adding comms to voltage regulators every day. We’ve already added communications to all of our capacitor banks, and next is fault indicators,” Wagner says. “And who knows what else will come from there.”

Kinnikin says the installation of automation technology has only helped to expand the department’s reach.

“Before, it was all inside the fence with the substations,” Kinnikin says. “Now, with D.A., it’s all outside the fence.”

As Delaware Electric continues to grow, so does its interest in new types of innovative, efficient technologies to better support the grid, all while better serving members. It’s that curiosity about possibilities of the future that Wagner credits as her favorite part of the job, along with what that means for system reliability.

“I just enjoy making it all work. I enjoy trying to find out what’s out there – new devices we can use, or if engineering or operations says, ‘Hey, we’ve got this new device. Do you think we can get comms for it?’ I like the excitement of just trying, of seeing if we can, and what it would take,” Wagner says. “The more information we have the better. The more tools we have at our disposal the easier the job is, the safer it is, the more we can get to the line guys and get to the members. It’s just interesting to see how we’ve evolved and what more there is to do.”