Electric cooperatives have a lot to keep up with these days. More kilowatts are being generated by behind-the-meter resources, consumer electrification is expanding with every new smart device, electric vehicle load is growing, and expectations for reliability are at an all-time high.

To address these challenges, NRECA has launched a Distribution Automation (DA) initiative to help co-ops move toward an integrated technology solution. DA uses automated devices, sensors, communication systems and data analytics to enhance resiliency, reliability and safety.

While DA is not new, electric co-ops have been slow to adopt the technology for various reasons, including the required investment in communications infrastructure.

“NRECA, through this initiative, is empowering our members with the necessary knowledge and tools that can help in adopting and implementing distribution automation technologies,” said Ravindra Singh, senior principal of DA for NRECA’s Business & Technology Strategies.

“The initiative will facilitate co-ops in creating their own DA strategy based on their grid needs and goals to operate the grid in a safe, secure and cost-effective manner.”

The initiative includes a road map for co-ops to pursue DA and its benefits. A cost/benefit analysis tool, more research and case studies of co-ops using DA are in the works.

The technology provides “situational awareness” and visibility of what resources are on a co-op’s distribution lines, facilitates integration and supports better power quality, Singh said.

Without DA, a co-op may not know what distribution resources—such as rooftop solar panels—are being added by consumer-members. “You will see equipment failures, outages increasing,” Singh said. “It would not be wise for a co-op not to keep up with this technology to sustain reliability.”

DA can also enable a “self-healing network” in which the grid can reconfigure itself to minimize outages when one segment loses power and allows crews to operate impacted areas in “island mode” using local generation until bulk supply is restored.

“Power distribution grids are evolving from being a passive network to more active network because of local generation coming on,” Singh said. “To do all the monitoring, optimization and renewable integration, you have to have communication and control of those devices. That's where distribution automation can play a significant role.”