21 Jan 2022

United Energy - Distribution automation excellence 

United Energy - Distribution automation excellence 
Image credit: United Energy
TECHNOLOGY

Australian distribution utility United Energy reaps the rewards of its focus on improved system reliability and safety supported by automated switching and network intelligence.

Located in Victoria, United Energy’s distribution automation initiative has marked a major milestone in the energy transformation of the southeastern Australian state.

The project, innovative in both scope and approach, was launched in 2018 and has well-positioned the utility to enable electrification and support the low carbon future that is the state’s ambition.

United Energy’s distribution automation was initiated in 2016 as an operational initiative to deliver a sustained improvement in system reliability through distribution management technology, analytics and integration with Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) and other system data.

INNOVATION, STRATEGY, DESIGN

The initiative was born out of a corporate drive for utilising technology in innovative ways to support operational excellence, higher customer satisfaction and superior financial performance. With a sophisticated approach to smart grid technology, network reliability and performance-based incentives and with the support of regulators, system-wide deployment has been undertaken across United Energy’s service territory, which encompasses east and south east Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula.

The programme was undertaken by the utility’s internal network analytics and information technology teams in partnership with Oracle Utilities.

Activities included upgrading the distribution management system, building a full low voltage (LV) network model, developing a mobility solution for field switching (integrated with the DMS) and implementing Oracle’s Operations Mobile Application (OMA) for fault response.

United Energy also developed a forecasting tool that utilises weather forecasts to predict the field labour requirements for fault response; as well as a fault prioritisation engine that draws on real-time travel data and customer outage numbers and locations to indicate where crews should be directed to optimise network safety and reliability.

United Energy considers that from a technology perspective, the most notable aspect of the initiative was a methodical, disciplined approach to developing and proving out
distribution automation use cases, starting with fault location, isolation and system restoration (FLISR).

This technology automatically executes high voltage (HV) fault switching where safe to do so and has restored over 300,000 customers in approximately 45 seconds since it was implemented. With FLISR, the utility was able to achieve the maximum possible performance bonus for system reliability from the Australian Energy Regulator in 2020.

Funding for the project was on a ‘pay as you go’ basis, drawing on its emerging economic benefits. “We are funding the journey with the benefits we recognise from each iteration,” explains Adam Gellie, General Manager for Service Delivery at United Energy.

“We don't strive for ‘perfect' – just ‘better’. We then bank the benefits and reinvest in the next best use case. That’s how we achieve excellence over time, redesigning inefficient processes and giving our control room valuable information to make great decisions.”

Gellie adds that the utility’s investment decisions are on track both to exceed the projected twoyear payback and to return between five and seven times the cost over a five-year period.

We don't strive for 'perfect' – just ‘better’. We then bank benefits and reinvest in the next best use case.


“Distribution engineering and operations compete for United Energy’s investment capital and after we secure the funding, we are wholly focused on beating our programme goals to earn the right to compete for additional investment funding down the road,” he says.

DEPLOYMENT

In the latest phase of its initiative, United Energy has deployed integrated field management solutions to improve the efficiency and safety of field operations. The technology, which includes a mobile application for field crews, has unlocked efficiencies on several fronts, including restoration times, dispatch queues, control centre processing throughput and data
collection times.

The improved safety benefits are deeply appreciated by both control room operators and field technicians, who can now see the real-time status of the network on their handheld devices.

The initiative has supported the creation of several permanent, highly skilled job positions related to technical and application design and network management. Funding for those
positions is supported by the economic and financial benefits of the project.

For United Energy employees in general, the project has served as an important vehicle to fund performance incentives and to drive employee engagement. Key results have been a 40-minute reduction in fault response and completion times, a halving in the number of switching incidents and improved field labour efficiency.

Beyond the economic and labour market benefits, the project is delivering indirect benefits to the local economy through improved system reliability translating into fewer economic losses by commercial and industrial customers due to planned and unplanned outages.

The initiative is also replicable for other electricity distribution utilities to drive continuous improvement in system reliability. Gellie explained: “Historically investment in operating technology was often deferred in favour of network augmentation projects and maintenance where the benefits to network reliability are clearly articulated. Investment in operational and network technology was typically driven by compliance requirements or end of support. We overcame this by breaking down our initiative into a series of projects and fully exploring and selling the benefits across business stakeholders. This building block approach paved the way and laid the foundation for future enhancements.”

NEXT STEPS

The next stage of development is in progress to deliver the remaining ADMS functionality including powerflow by June 2022. Allowing United Energy to optimise the LV network with the rapid increase of solar generation and support the transition to a DSO.

United Energy distributes electricity to more than 680,000 primarily residential customers in Victoria, amounting to approximately onequarter of the state’s population including a sizable portion of the third-largest metropolitan area in Australia.

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