Introduction to the distribution automation assets project

Project Description

Distribution automation (DA) enables remote, real-time monitoring, operation, and optimization of utility distribution systems. DA assets are becoming more common, and the number being deployed is growing. It is important for utilities to actively manage DA assets due to their prevalence and their criticality to grid modernization efforts.

The objective of this research is to provide member utilities with advanced knowledge, technologies, and tools that enable them to make informed decisions regarding the life-cycle management of Distribution Automation assets.

The current research needs include understanding failure and degradation modes; improved inspection techniques and maintenance procedures; tools and technologies to remotely manage settings and firmware; reference books, asset databases, practices, and guidelines to assist with asset deployment and management; and a collaborative environment for sharing lessons learned and leading practices.

Research Tasks

The Distribution Automation Assets project (P180.003) focuses on the assets that utilities use to automate the distribution system. These assets include switching devices (reclosers, sectionalizers, enclosed switches, advanced lateral switches, and padmount switchgear) and their controls, voltage optimization controls (capacitor bank and voltage regulator controls), edge-of-grid power electronic voltage regulation devices, and distribution voltage and current sensors.

The Distribution Automation Assets research in 2022 consists of the following tasks:

Laboratory Evaluation and Assessment: This task intends to define tests, develop the capability, and perform laboratory testing for distribution sensors, controls, and switching devices. Test results aim to inform utility decisions regarding specification and selection. In 2022, evaluations of the Micatu Underground Optical Voltage and Current Sensor and the Siemens CMR Single Phase Recloser are planned.

Recloser Failure Analysis: This task investigates the degradation mechanisms and failure modes of distribution reclosers by analyzing failed units in the laboratory. The gathering of failure information from utilities is also planned gain additional information on the failure modes of reclosers. The results could reduce the likelihood of failure and aid utilities in optimizing life-cycle performance.

Lightning and Surge Protection for Automation Assets: Utilities must protect control and communication equipment from the effects of lightning and surges on the distribution system. This task investigates utility grounding, bonding, and surge protection approaches for recloser, automated switch, capacitor bank, and voltage regulator installations. The task plans to continue to evaluate the effects of lightning on different installation configurations for automation equipment using laboratory testing and/or simulation.

Cabling and Connectors for Automation Equipment: Automation controls are typically connected to devices at the top of the pole using a multi conductor control cable that is terminated on both ends with a multi-pin connector. Control cables are used to send operation commands, sensor measurements, and contact status and are critical for automation assets to properly function. Control cables have been found to cause mis-operations of automation device, inconsistent or inaccurate measurements from sensors, and reporting of improper statuses from the device. This task plans to investigate control cabling to understand failure causes and perform testing to inform specification and selection decisions related to control cables and connectors. The task also aims to understand practices related to installation and maintenance of control cables.

DA Asset Inspection and Maintenance Guide: Once the current rapid deployment of reclosers and other distribution automation equipment is completed, utilities must begin to manage these wide scale deployments in the field. This task intends to develop guidance on the inspection and maintenance of various automation equipment including reclosers, capacitor banks, and voltage regulators.

Virtual Inspection and Maintenance: This task aims to evaluate approaches and techniques that could be used to perform virtual inspections on DA devices. A “virtual” inspection remotely captures operational measurements, event reports, and readings from DA devices to determine asset health. The data collected can be used to perform online monitoring to actively manage automation equipment.

EPRI Distribution Automation Guidebook: EPRI continues development of a comprehensive DA guidebook, with a current focus on reclosers, recloser controls, and distribution sensors. Report contents include a focus on specification, selection, installation, operation, and maintenance. In 2022, updates are planned to address cyber/physical secuity and IED management / remote access of automation assets.

Practices: This task investigates leading practices for management and field operation of DA devices. Focus areas include DA asset design, provisioning, installation, commissioning, inspection, maintenance, and troubleshooting. These practices are gathered through broad utility surveys and targeted interviews to discuss the utility’s practices in depth.

Utility Exchange: EPRI plans to develop and deliver a workshop on distribution automation to provide members a forum to exchange information on different utility automation practices. The themes for the workshop session are based on ongoing research and industry issues. Also, a series of utility information exchange sessions are planned on practices of interest to utility participants.

For more information on the 2022 plans in P180.003, contact Jason Anderson

Research Value

The proposed research on DA assets is expected to produce the following value for participating utilities:

  • Solid technical basis for making informed decisions regarding the specification, selection, and installation of DA assets
  • Approaches and techniques for remote IED management to support cyber and physical security of DA assets
  • Guidance on how to increase asset reliability and reduce O&M expenses by performing virtual inspections on DA assets
  • Better understanding of lightning protection and grounding for DA installations
  • Forum for members to share experiences with DA assets

Task Force

The Distribution Automation Task Force advises the Distribution Automation Assets Project (P180.003). This task force consists of utility subject-matter experts in areas related to automation, grid monitoring, and control. The task force is focused on the life-cycle of automation assets including switching devices, sensors, controls, and voltage optimization devices. This task force meets several times per year by WebEx or in person. There is usually one in-person meeting per year held in conjunction with the other P180 task forces.

Members are encouraged to participate in several ways:

  • Attend task-force meetings
  • Provide equipment for testing or evaluation
  • Provide information on your company’s standards or practices (a survey for example)
  • Review and comment on reports and findings
  • Attend testing at EPRI laboratories
  • Present to the task force on company issues or initiatives
  • For equipment failures, submit equipment to EPRI for forensic analysis
  • Reach out to Jason Anderson on matters related to automation

This task force is also a good opportunity to meet automation experts at other participating companies.

Common Questions

Who can attend task-force meetings?

  • Task-force meetings are for funders of the P180.003 project. This includes task-force members and guests from sponsoring companies.

Are there specific membership requirements?

  • The only requirement is to fund P180.003. Membership is rather loose. There are no meeting attendance requirements.

How do I join this task force?

Can my company have more than one task-force member?

  • Yes.

Can I share task-force material within my company?

  • Yes.

Can I share task-force material outside my company?

  • Generally, not. There are exceptions, so if you have a need, please contact Jason Anderson.

Are discussions covered by a non-disclosure agreement?

  • Yes. All EPRI member agreements include non-disclosure clauses.

If my company isn’t funding this, how can I sign up?

  • Each company has their own methods for selecting components of the annual EPRI research portfolio. Contact your METT for more information. Technical advisors from EPRI’s member services can also help. Find contact information here.

Collaborative Supplemental Projects


Distribution Recloser Life-Cycle Management

Understand Future recloser performance … to make better decisions Today!

Reclosers are an essential component of utility grid modernization efforts. EPRI is performing laboratory testing including functional tests, the accuracy of embedded and external recloser sensors, and accelerated aging testing on many different reclosers. Once testing is completed the recloser will be systematically dismantled to look for potential future degradation mechanisms. The goal of this work is to help utilities to make informed life cycle management decisions regarding distribution reclosers

The outcomes from this project include:

  • Identify recloser degradation mechanisms and failure modes
  • Evaluate accuracy of embedded and external sensors
  • Implement recloser aging protocol based on previous recloser degradation studies
  • Inform recloser fleet specifications and deployment decisions
  • Determine inspection and maintenance practices to extend recloser service life

Alternative Technologies for Recloser Backup Power

Improve recloser backup power to reduce O&M costs and ensure the reliability benefits of automation.

Many utilities have recently completed or are in the process of wide-scale deployment of distribution reclosers as part of grid modernization efforts. Experience has shown that battery maintenance represents the largest O&M expense related to reclosers. As such, these expanded deployments may increase O&M spending for battery maintenance. The backup batteries in most controls are valve regulated lead acid batteries (VRLA) and this has been the standard for many years. There are several new potential energy storage technologies that may also prove useful for these applications. The objective of this project is to investigate the suitability of alternative energy storage technologies to provide recloser backup power. This new project will consider several areas related to backup power systems in distribution recloser controls.

The following tasks are planned:

  • Document Current Backup Power Practices
  • Explore Battery Alternatives
  • Laboratory Evaluation of Battery Alternatives
  • Understand the Environmental Effects on Battery Alternatives
  • Investigate New Battery Health Monitoring Techniques

Click here for more information

For more on supplemental projects, see here. To discuss project ideas, please e-mail Jason Anderson.

Laboratory Capabilities

  • Distribution Sensor Testing - EPRI has developed a methodology and the capability to perform testing distribution sensors to understand their performance and life-cycle characteristics. Tests include 60 Hz measurement accuracy, fault testing, harmonics, environmental testing, different line geometries, and long-term aging tests. The goal of this testing is to test not only the sensing component, but the entire system from the measurement transducer to the data collection point. This gives a much more real-world performance from laboratory investigation.
  • Switching Devices Testing and Design Reviews - EPRI has been performing testing on reclosers and other switching devices to understand expected performance and long-term characteristics. Laboratory capabilities include functionality testing, multi-stress aging tests, environmental testing, and complete design reviews of materials and components of new devices.

Failure Analysis & Services

EPRI offers utilities the ability to send in failed automation equipment such as reclosers to perform diagnostics, and systematically teardown the equipment to ascertain the root cause of failure. This process typically takes the following form:

  • Photo Documentation - Capture visual evidence prior to any unit disassembly
  • Electrical Testing - Determine status and operability of the recloser electrical components of the automation equipment
  • Teardown - Systematic disassembly if needed of the equipment to identify cause of failure
  • Analysis - Findings reviewed, further laboratory testing and potential failure modes identified
  • Report and Technical Transfer - The findings of the investigation will be developed into a report and communicated to the utility via webcast or other method

Other Programs

P200 Distribution Operations and Planning

P200 Cockpit | portfolio

  • PS200C: Operations
  • PS200D: Operations

Program 180: Distribution Systems

Equipment failures can often pose safety risks. In both the P180.001 Overhead and P180.002 Underground projects, the fundamental deterioration and failure modes of equipment are evaluated.

The P180.002 Underground project is also covering issues with manhole explosions from flammable gases and faults.