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Intelligent distribution automation

CFE in Mexico: Stability is competitive advantage

As energy markets are opening in Mexico, Miguel Luna Vallejo and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad are using Siemens DA systems to stay competitive. CFE serves over three million customers in the State of Mexico, after retrofitting circuits with Siemens products outages are down 40 percent in those sectors.

As his title suggests, Miguel Luna Vallejo’s job at the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), or Federal Electricity Commission, is an important one. He is Power System Protection Chief for a district that includes part of sprawling Mexico City as well as the highly industrialized State of Mexico that rings much of the capital.

In short, it’s his responsibility to make sure CFE reliably delivers electricity to three million customers in his district that run the gamut from residential users in the densely populated capital to institutional and manufacturing clients like hospitals, schools, auto manufacturers and makers of medical supplies.

“Serving this city is complex because of traffic and the difficulty we sometimes have in accessing the huge numbers of users on our circuits,” Miguel Luna Vallejo explains. The density of his customer base is illustrated by the fact that Vallejo’s zone averages up to 10,000 users per circuit. That’s double the density of circuits in most Mexican urban areas.

DA pilot project
Miguel Luna Vallejo’s company recently decided that Siemens’ distribution automation (DA) technology was a cost-effective way to insure continuity and quality of service as it navigates through an increasingly competitive electricity market. CFE installed Siemens DA in pilot projects at two of its circuits last year, and so far the results have been promising.   

Since DA became operational, Vallejo’s all-important TIU index – Spanish initials for average interruption time per user – is down 40 percent over parts of the grid where the  Siemens system has been installed. That’s good for households and business clients, but also for CFE because the giant utility wastes less energy as it transitions from protected monopoly to open market competitor.

“Before, an outage was costing us on average 8 megawatt-hours of lost energy sales. Now, when we have a fault, we are saving that much,” Miguel Luna Vallejo says.

Improving efficiency is not an option, but an imperative for CFE. Last year, Mexico’s government passed laws to break up the electric power monopoly into its six component parts including generation, transmission, distribution, and marketing operations. Each unit was warned that government subsidies would soon end and that they must perform on their own in a soon-to-be open market or face the possibility of privatization.

Integration with existing gear
Among the Siemens’ distribution automation system’s selling points was the way it could be retrofitted with CFE’s existing equipment made by various suppliers, which kept the cost of installing the new system down. The Siemens technology optimized the use of CFE’s existing fiber optics-based data communications, which meant no new subterranean or overhead wiring had to be installed, a big plus in a metropolis as congested as Mexico City, Miguel Luna Vallejo says.

The remote fault isolation and service restoration feature of Siemens DA, which identifies and then “heals” outages through automatic switching to better feeds, means that Vallejo is already seeing reduced manpower costs because computers are doing the re-switching work that used to be done manually by repair crews.

Before DA, re-establishing power after a significant power failure took two hours on average. Now the fault is fixed “instantaneously,” Miguel Luna Vallejo states.

Service is key
“The best way to protect ourselves in the new environment is by offering efficient service. Distribution automation helps us do that by isolating a failure and automatically reestablishing service,” Vallejo notes. “That way, we give customers continuity, and the company sells more energy.”

Distribution automation helps us isolate a failure and reestablish service instantaneously.
Miguel Luna Vallejo, Power System Protection Chief at CFE, Mexico


The engineer knows that the real competitive test for CFE distribution and other units is approaching. Over the coming decade, new domestic and foreign power competitors will arrive at the same time as that the government slowly eliminates subsidies to its former monopoly.  

The CFE generation arm, for example, will go head to head with private companies such as mining giant Grupo Mexico, which recently acquired its own turn-key Siemens-built electric power plant in northern Sonora state. The mining company's power plant will not only supply electricity to its mines, but will sell excess power back to the national grid as well.

“Now, CFE is the only distributor of electricity in Mexico. But with the change in laws and the apertura, or opening of markets, there will be free competition soon. We are preparing for that day,” Miguel Luna Vallejo explains. “We want our customers to stay with us, not leave.”

Chris Kraul is a Bogotá-based freelance writer.
Picture credits: Markus Günther