Distribution grids -- the medium and low-voltage electricity networks that deliver power from substations all the way to utility customers -- remain mostly dark to utilities and grid operators today. That’s too bad, because distribution grids are where most of a utility’s accidents, outages and maintenance breakdowns occur, and the addition of more sensors has been proven to reduce those costs.  

That makes for a big potential market for sensor technology that can help utilities track and manage the transformers, substations, feeder lines and other systems that make up their distribution systems. We’ve been covering the growth of this market, most recently with our GTM Research report, Transformer Monitoring Markets, 2013-2020: Technologies, Forecasts, and Leading Vendors, which takes a deep dive into the sensors, networks and software now going into the transformers that step voltages up and down across the grid.

The transformer monitoring market is made up of an interesting mix of grid giants like GE, ABB, Siemens, Alstom and Schneider Electric and less well-known major transformer vendors, as well as a good number of startups with new approaches to the task. GTM Research smart grid analyst Ben Kellison has laid out a long list of players in the space, complete with a taxonomy that describes what niches they fill, and how they work with one another.

But with such a fast-moving market, we’ve seen several new entrants emerge to take a crack at the transformer monitoring market since our report went to press. One such newcomer is IUS Technologies, a U.S. subsidiary of South Korean SCADA and grid control giant Vitzro, which has outfitted a plant in Alpharetta, Ga. and launched product sales late last year.

Specifically, IUS has launched two devices, the VS-1000 for single-phase applications and the VS-3000 for three-phase applications, that it says can beat the competition in terms of accuracy and functionality. So far, IUS has tested both units with AEP, a utility with more than 5 million customers across eleven states. CEO Sang Lee told me in an interview last month that the company is targeting the broader North American market, with more interesting applications of its technology to come. Here’s what’s on offer.

The Technology

Like many other transformer monitoring devices, the VS-3000 connects directly to pole-top or pad-mount transformers, and measures three-phase voltage, frequency, reactive power both real and apparent, true harmonic distortion (THD) and other such metrics of the trade. But the VS-3000 is more accurate than the competition, at about 0.3 percent precision on voltage measurements, compared to 0.7 to 1 percent for most competitors, according to Scott Zajkowski, IUS’s head of North American business development.

That’s partly because it uses more complex math, including measurements of something called “true RMS voltage,” where RMS stands for "root mean square" -- a mathematically precise method that most other devices eschew in favor of simpler, less computationally challenging estimations and calculations. “It comes down to a lot of engineering, and a lot of programming,” Zajkowski said, but IUS says it can deliver these extra benefits at a cost comparable to, if not lower than, competing devices.

To do much of the math that goes into delivering this precision, the VS-3000 holds a lot more processing power than the typical sensor, with a built-in microcontroller and 24-input, 8-output remote terminal unit (RTU) that’s able to do more advanced logic to control things like capacitor banks and other nearby substation equipment, he noted. The whole thing communicates via DNP-3 and other SCADA grid protocols, as well as via utility radio systems or cellular networks, he said. One interesting networking feature IUS uses is called “unsolicited response,” meaning that the devices crunch and filter a lot of their data themselves, and pick and choose what they send up the network to the master control system, thus saving on bandwidth and network constraints. (Of course, plenty of other grid devices and network management technologies also use such measures.)

As for integration, IUS would work with such big distribution management system (DMS) vendors as GE and Siemens, he said, as well as volt/VAR optimization (VVO) or conservation voltage reduction (CVR) vendors such as Cooper Power (now part of Eaton) or Utilidata (the latter also a partner with AEP). Knowing just what your grid voltage stands is critical for CVR and VVO schemes, so more precise sensor data could be a big selling point. While Zajkowski wouldn’t name any commercial-scale customers for the VS-3000 yet, tests with AEP have been going well, and the company has also sold product in South America, he said.

The Business Case(s)

IUS parent company Vitzro Group brings its own heft in its home market of South Korea, where it’s been installing SCADA systems and building power equipment for decades, and reported about $1 billion in revenues last year. IUS CEO Sang Lee told me that the company has also been involved in smart-grid-related projects like substation automation for a long time, working with Korean national utility KEPCO in building out the country’s much-vaunted grid capabilities.

“The problem in the United States,” he said by way of contrast, “is that the smart grid infrastructure that has been deployed so far has been smart meters.” While those AMI systems may be able to feed data to SCADA, CVR and DMS systems, this involves a lot of complex data and network management and integration to pull off -- and many utilities are loath to tamper with their critical billing and data verification tasks to take on those extra duties.

Distribution automation (DA), on the other hand, is just beginning to take off in North America, and “we’ve found our niche with our smart sensors,” Lee said. GTM Research predicts that the U.S. transformer monitoring hardware market will grow from $112 million today to $750 million by decade’s end, to name one application IUS can target.

As for what else the company could do with its sensors, Lee hinted at some projects it’s doing in South Korea, working with grid operators there to prepare for peak power loads, like those that sweep Seoul on hot summer afternoons. IUS has been looking at demand response markets in California and Texas, and it is working on strategic partnerships with SCADA and DMS vendors such as Siemens and SAIC on approaches that could help fine-tune DR, he said.

While IUS hasn’t announced any projects on this front, “based on our platform, which is very flexible, we just see that there’s an opportunity there,” he said.