The road to smarter energy using IEC 61850 starts with training

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The National Grid’s warnings that factories could see mandatory shutdowns at peak times this winter has renewed concerns over the future of the energy sector in the UK. The best solution is the transition to a smarter grid that allows for better integration and management of different electricity assets, leading to improved reliability of supply. Pascal Schaub, director and principal engineer of DT Partners in Australia, explains the significance of the IEC 61850 standard for the energy sector. Also discussed is the importance of the training needed to implement the standard effectively and efficiently to deliver a smarter grid. Schaub has recently provided an in-depth IEC 61850 training session for several UK companies during a daylong workshop organised by industrial software expert COPA-DATA.

The international standard series IEC 61850 Communication and Systems for Power Utility Automation is already revolutionising the world of electrical power systems. The standard defines how to describe devices that form part of the electricity grid and how to exchange information about and between these devices. The standard applies to electricity substations, distributed energy resources such as wind farms and photovoltaic power plants, as well as hydro power plants. IEC 61850 is one of the pillar standards enabling the development and rollout of smart grid solutions.


Why IEC 61850 matters
To connect devices from different vendors in a secure and interoperable manner, the IEC 61850 standard was compiled. The standard enables business improvements by defining standardised methods of communication between devices. It enables the development of systems that use multi-vendor products, networked together to perform highly critical protection, monitoring, automation, metering and control functions.

IEC 61850 is not a solution in itself, but enables the adoption of technology platforms that allow businesses to reduce costs, while increasing the safety and performance of their assets.
A major benefit of IEC 61850 is its ability to be flexible. The freedom to create a multi-vendor system, without worrying about interoperability issues is something engineers in the energy sector value greatly in solution development. It also creates some degree of vendor independence and allows end users to competitively price the market.

The ability to use Ethernet technology is another powerful benefit. This allows users to replace the many copper connections between field devices, the control room and the switchyard with simple, safe, reliable and cost-effective fibre optic connections.

Design, construction and testing times can be reduced significantly and documentation can be simplified using IEC 61850. Ethernet technology employed on device and substation level also presents an opportunity to make the data available to expert systems on the enterprise level, like data historian, trend analysis and business management systems.
Seamless communication from the enterprise network down to field device level allows companies to identify and manage issues or make configuration changes remotely. This, in turn saves significant time and costs, especially since substations or distributed energy resources can often be located in remote areas.

IEC 61850 provides the basis for the adoption of other new technologies such as electronic instrument transformers. This new technology can simplify and compact the primary equipment, reduce the environmental footprint, increase the system flexibility and reduce the occurrence of problems or safety hazards associated with the use of conventional instrument transformer technology.

Talking about features
One of the key features of the IEC 61850 standard is the System Configuration Language. This computer-based language allows for the IEC 61850 device and system configuration to be formalised in machine and human readable files. These files replace some of the paper-based documentation and can be used for engineering, testing and even verification and validation purposes.
The Ethernet network is a critical component in any IEC 61850 system. Network design is a separate engineering discipline and requires specific skills and knowledge, not only of Ethernet technology, but also the detailed application requirements applicable to the power utility domain.

The network architecture is generally derived from the application requirements and the physical topology of the substation, while also taking into consideration the switchgear arrangement and control building location. When designing a network it is also important to consider the operation and maintenance of different subsystems, including protection, control and SCADA.
Another key feature is GOOSE, the IEC 61850 communication mechanism used to transfer information between devices at a high speed using Ethernet. The information acquired can be aggregated in datasets.

This is fundamentally different to a hard-wired system where one physical connection has one function and purpose only and where physical isolation links are being used for trip signals. Because of this, companies have to consider how that isolation can be performed on information sent via GOOSE, especially if the data is used for protection purposes.

The risks of insufficient knowledge
The potential of IEC 61850 for the energy industry is encouraging, but before embarking on a project, it is important to look at the main risks that may arise before, during and after implementation.

A major risk comes from not getting all the relevant staff involved in the project. Commissioning, operations, management and maintenance staff should be involved in project development, delivery and the organisational transition to IEC 61850 systems.

Unless this happens, there is a real risk the designs might not address all of the operations and maintenance requirements. There is also a chance the company might end up in a situation where the workforce doesn’t understand how to test and operate an IEC 61850 system due to a lack of skills, experience, tools or work process.
A lack of knowledge and understanding of the relevant standards and technologies is a key point that needs to be addressed. Not having enough understanding of the IEC 61850 standard or a lack of management support often causes implementation issues leading to design deficiencies and cost blowouts. Additionally, lack of design skills in industrial Ethernet networking can become a huge obstacle when designing network architectures for critical applications.

Another risk is the lack of targeted testing during the project implementation phase. Although the main goal of IEC 61850 is interoperability between devices, it is often necessary to perform relevant testing in order to confirm that interoperability is achieved between the selected products.

Training for the win
Systems based on IEC 61850 are inherently more complex when compared to conventional hard-wired systems. Companies should ensure the people involved in the design, commissioning, operation and maintenance of new systems understand the IEC 61850 standard, as well as how it applies to products and systems. The best way to achieve this is through targeted training.

Ethernet technology is a critical design component, especially if the network is being used for protection purposes. As such, training needs to include the use of industrial Ethernet in a substation environment.

Ideally, theoretical and hands-on training should be provided with a combination of formal and on the job training. There are a number of companies providing such training and mentoring or consultancy services.

At DT Partners, we work with a variety of collaborators around the globe. In our experience, COPA-DATA’s zenon is a good example of a SCADA system that can be used to implement and train interested parties on the implementation of IEC 61850. Working with a HMI SCADA software provider that delivers the right technology is a critical success factor.
IEC 61850 has the potential to solve some of the UK’s energy problems, by facilitating the transition to a smarter grid. Before embarking on any venture, it is important to seek some professional support, so the risk is greatly reduced and a more realistic budget is achievable, leading to a successful project implementation.

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