Connexus Energy is the largest electric distribution cooperative in Minnesota, serving about 126,000 members in a seven-county service territory north of the Twin Cities. Recently, the cooperative completed a significant upgrade to its systems operations control center that includes the necessary technology to support a new Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system designed to enhance communication with substations and improve response time to outages.
"The control center is really the nerve center of our company," said Nick Loehlein, Connexus Energy Group Leader - System Operations. "From here our operators monitor and analyze the operating performance of the cooperative's distribution system to ensure safe and reliable electric service."
Designed in 1997, when the building was constructed, the original control room made use of CRT monitors. When these were replaced with flat panel monitors there was room for only three on each console, which was hardly enough to support the multiple software applications the operators monitor at any given time.
Major components in any control room are the consoles that tie the technology to the operators. When Connexus Energy began designing the new control room it quickly became clear that new consoles would be needed. The existing console was simply not flexible enough to accommodate the new technology. "There was not enough desk space and not enough space for monitors," said Loehlein. "That's why we needed to upgrade the console. We actually had flat panel monitors in the old holes for tube-type monitors."
Some of the different operations that are performed and monitored at the workstations include: dispatching, trouble information, outage information, communication with line crews, answering customer calls, responding to alarms from various systems and monitoring both security and control systems. There are three console workstations in the new control center. At any given time one to three of them are manned. Each console is an identical copy of the next, which was a request from the system operators.
Previously, there may have been only one point of access for each system, which meant that the operators were having to move from workstation to workstation in order to address the demands of the system. For instance, if the phone that connects to the county dispatch centers rang and the operator that worked at that workstation was responding to a different alarm another operator would have to come over to answer the call.
Now every aspect of the control system can be accessed from any workstation and operators can move seamlessly between workstations if necessary. "It's a much more efficient way to approach the control room setup that allows operators to easily collaborate and provide coordinated control of all the activities on the distribution system," said Loehlein.
Connexus Energy engaged a designer within the organization to work with operators to design a console that met the unique requirements of this operations center. She created a U-shaped console design that would bring together all of the new technology and provide sufficient monitors at each workstation.
The preliminary design was then sent to several vendors with requests for bids. As always, cost was a consideration but in the end the decision came down to the need for fabricated furniture that would be both durable and flexible vs. cubicle-type furniture that was largely pieced together. "We really felt, on the advice of our designer, that the pieced together cubicle type furniture offered by other vendors would not be sufficient," said Loehlein. "It wasn't appropriate for a control room environment. It wouldn't have the strength we needed to support all the systems, computers and, of course, 24/7 use."