Quanta Technology Blog

Technology Infusion in the Opposite Direction

Post author: Lee Willis

For most of the past one hundred years, new technologies have entered the power industry "at the top", near the generation level, and gradually worked their way down to the distribution level. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, circuit breakers were almost exclusively transmission equipment, and distribution protection was done with fuses. Gradually, as cost came down and equipment became available in lower voltages, breakers were used at the distribution level. Voltage regulation was applied to selected medium voltage buses long before it was applied on a feeder basis, and longer still before in-line regulators became common. Automated switching came first to transmission, then gradually spread to the distribution level. Centralized control – EMS and SCADA – preceded distribution DMS by decades. Backup generation/storage systems were applied only to large and important facilities (hospitals, etc.) for decades before they became ubiquitous in demand-side applications as computer and small business UPS, etc. And so it went...

This overarching trend is the way most innovations diffuse into our utility systems because of the way equipment is developed and the cost versus benefit ratios that result. A worthwhile innovation was initially rather expensive and designed for applications where it was most critically needed usually high voltage, large capacity – the most important installations. Gradually, simplification of design, increasing production efficiency, and higher volumes bring price down and push availability up until the invention spreads to smaller applications where it was always needed, but not previously justifiable.

Most recently, this evolution is happening with phase measurement units (PMUs). Initially they were applied to EHV – and only sparingly, at that – before spreading gradually throughout transmission systems. Now they are making their way onto distribution systems in limited, but important, applications. No doubt there will be other examples in the future of technology diffusion taking this path into power systems.

But something quite different is about to happen, and it will be interesting to watch it play out. Solid-state "electronic service transformers" are on the horizon. These devices completely fulfilling the role of the distribution service transformer, yet have no wound components. Quite inexpensively, they can include optional features that regulate voltage and power factor, and provide for current limitation and switching. Some provide inversion and rectification, and synchronization of generation and storage, too. And others operate at several different input voltages (12kV, 4 kV) while producing several different AC voltages (600/ 240/120 volts AC) or DC voltages (96, 54, 24, 12 VDC) as needed. In their full-featured form, they are basically very flexible, one-size-fits-all "smart local power hubs."

It would be easy to view these solid-state "transformers" as a continuation of a FACTS trend started decades ago at the EHV and HV level, but that doesn’t seem correct to me. The prototype devices I’ve examined have evolved "up" from the low-voltage consumer electronics field, not "down" from higher-voltage and larger sized FACTS machinery. What has worked for years at five, fifty or one hundred volts has been resized to twelve thousand. Beyond that difference, these prototypes do a lot more than any one FACTS installation I′ve seen. They transform, invert, rectify and regulate voltage, power factor and even wave-shape. They not only switch, but limit current and flow direction and apply programmable protection and automation on a dynamic basis.

While costs will probably put these solid state service transformer power hubs into the premium equipment category when they are first introduced, their price will almost certainly drop to commodity levels quickly. Regardless, in the long run these devices are intended to be commodity equipment, available by the thousands – the tens of thousands, if need be – in a range of standard sizes and modular configurations, priced so as to be very competitive with traditional alternatives.

If this trend plays out, it will be a new experience for the power industry. The customer and distribution end of the system will have technology more advanced than, and in some ways performance advantages over, the higher voltage levels of the system at least until these solid state units are scaled up to higher voltages and capacities. In an industry driven more and more by customer preferences and values linked to the use of distributed power and customer choice and control, it will be interesting to see if it happens. And if so, why? And more interesting still – how?

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