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All Places > Electric and Gas > Blog > 2019 > June

In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates said, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction." We are already seeing increased complexity in electric distribution circuits. If Gates is correct, we will see much more in the coming years.

Electric utilities historically operate their distribution systems in sections called circuits. This blog series looks at some important characteristics of the circuits of the future and how they may differ from those of the past and the present. These differences are acting to convert our familiar circuits into a network that relies on electronics and data for routine operation. Are you setting your system up for success in the face of these changes?

Part 1 of this blog introduced some fundamental differences between circuits and future networks. Part 2 examined why networks must be capable of being split into smaller parts. This final segment will consider the network's greater complexity and its need to handle rapid changes.

Greater Complexity

The sheer volume of electric system devices is going through the roof—microgrids, distributed generators, smart inverters, sensors, and automatic switches all bring greater complexity. These devices are more sophisticated than most of the circuit devices commonly in use today.

Arguably the most common device on a circuit today is a fuse—a skinny piece of wire that, as its sole operation, burns up! An important insight is to realize that most circuits, on their journey to become a network, are starting from a very low level of sophistication.

Sophisticated devices have more connection points, bypass functions, and test provisions. In addition, they are often configurable, integrate with communication systems, and exchange parameters with other devices and systems. These parameters help govern equipment settings, price signals, and protection from harmful conditions. Much of this complexity is linked to modern electronics that consume data in real time.

Smaller network pieces and sophisticated devices complicate routine operating decisions. Formerly simple manual operations, like opening an overhead pole switch, will be initiated remotely with the use of a new and vastly more sophisticated switch. Instead of simply verifying adequate electrical capacity and switching from one circuit to another, operators will need to understand how each of these changes affects the entire network.

I investigated several high-voltage accidents while working for utilities. Two of the worst injury accidents had their root cause in misidentified energized equipment. In tight spaces, like substations or underground structures, complexity brings the need for more equipment which takes up precious working space. More equipment and less space makes safe operation that much more challenging. To work safely, the data and information systems supporting these new networks must also accommodate their greater complexity and detail.

Rapid Changes

Traditional circuit layouts tend to be static, changing only for specific tasks or between summer and winter configurations. Dispatch and field personnel often have them nearly memorized. A gray-haired supervisor may confidently tell a new apprentice, "That transformer is on circuit number 121—it feeds from Buckingham substation up on the hill," speaking on the assumption that the circuit's characteristics remain constant.

Self-healing capabilities such as reverse power flow and the use of automatic switches and microgrids can all change networks rapidly and without much warning. They can alternate in response to different conditions in a short period of time. Traditionally, to alert employees, such changes are announced over the operation's two-way radios mounted in work trucks. Advanced network changes may occur with little or no human interaction, and without radio announcement. This real-time operating paradigm sparks different work procedures and safety concerns because such rapid changes were not normal in the past.

Staff are not used to their circuits changing quickly. They are accustomed to referencing their relatively static maps. Historically, a period of weeks to apply map updates was acceptable. But now, last month's map products from the Maps and Records division will be simply inadequate to meet the real-time operating needs of new networks. All users, in the office and the field, will need more detailed information in near real time.


Is there a time coming when we won't even think of circuits at all? Probably, but not in the immediate future. For decades, circuits were the only source of power to the distribution system. Today, every rooftop solar installation is another source to consider. The circuit at the substation may not be the only source on the network, but it will certainly remain important for quite some time.

Many of the standards necessary to implement a smarter network are still under development. Given all the forces acting to change circuits into networks, prepare for a continuous evolution of equipment and capability. When you don't know exactly what will be required, flexibility is a key strategy.

New functions will continue to be added, improving our ability to optimize distribution operations for power quality, cost, and reliability. Grid modernization and circuit evolution also mean a great deal of physical work, building networks and systems to support them.

Because networks of the future will be controlled with electronics and data, the underlying information models and systems will be foundational to success. Like Bill Gates said, "Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction." The ArcGIS platform is specifically designed to help utilities model and operate these new complex and rapidly changing networks.

For more information on how the ArcGIS platform helps electric utilities manage advanced networks, visit our site.Advertisement

In electric utilities, we are really attached to our circuits. Get ready- those circuits are going to change, and as we progress, may become unrecognizable! Circuits are so embedded in our culture that a colleague once remarked that we are fixated on them!  He was right. We are fixated on circuits, and with good reason.

Electric utilities typically operate their distribution systems in pieces called circuits or feeders. We map by circuit, patrol facilities, trim trees, and report statistics by their circuit name or number.  As the utility industry changes, circuits will need to morph into more of an interconnected network. “Network” is a much better term than “circuits” to describe the future state. Is your utility preparing to successfully operate the network of the future?  

Part I of this series introduced some fundamental differences between traditional circuits and future networks.  This part II will examine the first difference – smaller pieces.

Smaller Pieces

In the future, electric networks will need to break down into smaller pieces for greater operating flexibility. Utilities established the sections of today’s circuits to reduce the customer impact of power outages, perform maintenance tasks, and supply large blocks of customer load. Utilities now need additional flexibility to accommodate different types of both customer usage and power generation. Distributed generation, including solar and wind, is steeply on the rise.  These variable resources bring constantly shifting power flows to circuits that were only designed for one-way power flow. Networks need smaller pieces with flexibility to handle variable power flows.

Electric vehicles can plug-in anywhere moving their electricity demand around like a big 2-story house on wheels! Yesterday’s large stable blocks of customer load are becoming less consistent and are now driving from one place to another.  Networks must be more configurable than circuits to meet the needs of tomorrow’s customers.

Smart-grid technologies too will drive networks to operate in smaller sections. Self-healing networks use smart switches to sense real-time conditions. In the blink of an eye, they communicate with other devices and compare observations. Together they determine when a power problem occurs and limit customer impact with instant automatic switching.  As utilities implement more self-healing capability, the pieces of the network will get smaller enhancing customer value by improving reliability.

It’s clear the operating pieces of the network will be smaller than those of a typical circuit today, delivering sorely needed operational flexibility.

Wrap up

New devices will split the coming network into smaller pieces. Because networks will be controlled with electronics and data, the backbone of this evolution will be a central data model of the entire system. This feature-rich model may be called a digital twin.  A fully functional digital twin, adequate to support disparate utility roles, is a big step from the straightforward facility mapping models of the past.

A digital twin should be sophisticated enough to represent each device accurately at its precise location. Device location on the network will guide its every operation.Smart utility operations begin and end with this location intelligence.

We are already seeing the writing on the wall as pilot projects adapt existing circuits to accommodate new unconventional devices. Common distribution circuits will evolve into a more robust network.  This flexible network must consist of smaller pieces, include numerous new complexities, and change quickly in response to system and customer needs.

The ArcGIS platform gives all stakeholders the ability to access and share critical network information. Advanced network information will have to become embedded in our “circuit culture” as it evolves.   The ArcGIS Utility Network Management extension is specifically designed to handle the smaller pieces and greater detail of the advanced electric networks now on the horizon.  

For more information on how the ArcGIS platform helps electric utilities manage advanced networks, visit our site.

One afternoon in engineering school, my professor boldly proclaimed, “Nothing has changed in power engineering since the 1930s!”  He knew that even the most advanced electrical devices of the time were controlled by very simple things like springs and magnets.  He wanted us to be solidly grounded in the underlying laws of physics, and my resulting education served me very well.  In contrast, the circuit networks of the future will be controlled with electronics and data, often managing the springs and magnets inside devices.

Can you imagine a professor making that statement today? Such a professor would certainly be out of touch with the utility business. In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith describes the necessity for successful people to make changes to further their success.  Successful utilities, and their circuits, will need to adapt to a dynamic world to be relevant and successful in the future.

Electric utilities typically operate their distribution systems in pieces called circuits or feeders. This practice served the industry well for many years. However, more than a few changes occurred since my university days in the early 1980s.  At that time, I didn’t have a computer or cell phone, and wrote term papers on an electric typewriter. This blog series will look at some important characteristics of the circuits of the future and how they may differ from the past and present. Like never before, data and information systems will be an integral part of operating future circuit networks.   How is your utility preparing to successfully operate the electric system of the future?

Given the changes in our business, the very term “circuit” could become confusing.  For clarity, I’ll call the future arrangement a network, rather than circuits.  The interconnected electric system is sometimes referred to as the largest and most complex machine on Earth. Historically operated as circuits, the network may become a utility’s most important asset, capable of enabling new business models and greater customer value. Rather than a one-way circuit that delivers electricity to customers, the network will have to become a market place for many more participants.

To avoid disappointment and become a market enabler, the network of the future must have some fundamental key differences – it must be divided into smaller pieces, have greater complexity, and change more rapidly than we are used to.

1 - Smaller Pieces

Sections of circuits are optimized simply to isolate system problems and supply large blocks of customers. Utilities, and in fact all users, will need the increased flexibility of smaller pieces to accommodate an exploding range of possible operating conditions brought about by all types of additional network devices.

2 - Greater Complexity

The sheer number of devices is increasing dramatically -  micro-grids, solar panels, sensors, electronic controls, all bring greater complexity.   A simple fuse, in service and undisturbed for 30 years, will be replaced by a sophisticated switch with an electronic controller communicating with the network. Its complex operation is based on the actual operating conditions as they exist right now! The complexity will usher in new challenges in recordkeeping, workforce development, maintenance, operation, and troubleshooting.

3 - Rapid Changes

Self-healing capabilities, reversing power flow, automatic switches, and smaller pieces, will all require networks to change rapidly.  Changes may occur with little or no human interaction, and may bounce between multiple states in a short period of time.  When things change quickly, they become a safety concern.  A pile of paper circuit maps is wholly inadequate to safely operate a more complex and rapidly changing network. Engineers and line workers alike will require near real-time information to operate the network safety and effectively.  

Near real-time information drives and enables better optimization of the entire system to reduce costs, enhance reliability, and improve power quality. A customer’s equipment, needs, and choices will also affect familiar circuits in many new ways.

Wrap up

Industry changes will require our beloved distribution circuits to be much different in the future.  The array of new utility devices offered in the marketplace is dizzying and trade articles regularly detail pilot projects dramatically altering the traditional distribution circuit layout. 

Because networks of the future will be controlled with electronics and data, information systems will be the foundation to operating these networks. The electronic model of the network will be central to all core business functions.

All the change drivers relate to the new network based on their exact connection points and location.   The ArcGIS platform gives all stakeholders the ability to access and share critical information, including the network model. The ArcGIS Utility Network Management extension is specifically designed to address the needs of a more complex and variable electric network. 

My professor, with his 1930s thinking, would be shocked how much power engineering has changed. He would be surprised at how inadequate classic circuits will be to safety support utility operations in a few years. How long will it take before circuits change into networks?  In some locations, the shift has already begun. The ArcGIS platform is designed to help utilities operate these new networks.

For more information on how the ArcGIS platform helps electric utilities model advanced networks, visit our site.