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FITNESS project sets roadmap for digital substations

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With innovation being essential to the future of the energy industry, Priyanka Mohapatra, RIIO-T2 innovation lead for SP Energy Networks, tells Electrical Review about progress on the RIIO-funded Future Intelligent Network Substation (FITNESS) project.

As the UK’s first multi-vendor digital substation installation, SP Energy Networks’ FITNESS is a landmark project that could radically change the way substations are built and maintained. During the project, vendors ABB and GE have equipped two substation bays with digital protection and control schemes at Wishaw 275 kilovolt (kV) substation near Glasgow, with support from project partners Synaptic, Omicron and the University of Manchester. 

As it is the first UK multi-vendor project, a key output has been the seamless integration of devices supplied by different manufacturers. This is vital to the deployment of the IEC 61850 smart grid standard in the long term as it will enhance competition and keep costs under control for electricity consumers – Ofgem’s driver for awarding funding for the project under the RIIO NIC (Network Innovation Competition) programme. 

Before IEC 61850 standardised the format and timing of digital communication using the GOOSE (Generic Object Oriented Substation Events) model, each vendor had its own proprietary approach, meaning that equipment from one vendor could not be slotted into a scheme developed by another vendor. Therefore, projects like FITNESS are essential to establishing digital substation technology. 

Renewable energy infeed

The scheme is a ‘piggyback’ trial that is now working alongside a conventional substation protection and control scheme to enable a direct comparison between conventional and digital technologies. 

Since the project won funding in 2015, early engineering design took place to ensure multi-vendor interoperability. ABB then installed the scheme for the first bay on site in 2018, with GE commissioning the second bay in July 2019. 

Now that both bays are in place, SP Energy Networks is evaluating their performance and has been sharing its learning points with the industry. 

One potential challenge anticipated early on was the possibility of conflict between the two main vendors. Our concern was that they’d be overly protective of their own intellectual property with a preference to stick to their own technology and products. 

However, we found that after a few initial challenges and testing the waters, both vendors showed true professionalism and commitment to make the multi-vendor aspect of IEC 61850 succeed. The project team consisted of the best engineers from across the industry which meant the few technical challenges that presented themselves were solved swiftly and efficiently.

Danny Lyonette, ABB’s digital lead for Substation Automation, Northern Europe said, “An important milestone was system verification at ABB’s facility in Stone, Staffordshire. We carried out extensive testing and commissioning by simulating real-life conditions in factory conditions. This proved the solution would work before it was delivered to site, saving time, effort and project risk during commissioning and testing.”

Culture and skills

An important point arose when we started to engage our operations team, including our wiremen. They were naturally curious about the new technology and recognised that digital technology will represent changes to the practical tasks they will cover, as well as a major shift in the skills and working practices required. As a result, they raised multiple comments and questions on the impact of digital technology. 

We addressed these by reminding our team that the transition from copper wiring to fibre optics will be gradual. SP Energy Networks has over 100 transmission network substations and will only integrate digital protection and control technology when the time comes to retire or refurbish assets. Therefore, we’ll still need the team’s existing knowledge and expertise for many years to come. 

But at the same time, we also need to develop our team to have the right digital skillset. An important aspect of this was recognising that not everyone needs detailed and in-depth technical knowledge of digital technology – it’s about matching the right skills to the right roles. For example, a technician may just need to have the right tools and knowledge to use the basic functions.

SP Energy Networks has also established new specialist roles for digital substations and has appointed candidates who have been undergoing rigorous training on how to apply IEC 61850. A key point for these new roles is that the candidates need to understand the technology at every level from the substation level to overall system integration – which would previously have required dedicated engineers working in silos. 

Five essential elements

With the two digital bays in operation at Wishaw, the team at SP Energy Networks are now creating a roadmap to make digital substations business as usual. This will require major review, revision and roll-out of documentation such as technical specifications, policies and procedures at the heart of the business. 

Our existing processes are closely aligned to traditional technology – so we can only realise the full benefits of digital technology by updating and refining our processes too. That requires a lot of effort and cooperation from across the whole business.

With experience from the FITNESS project under our belt, we have identified five essential elements to make large-scale deployment of digital substations a reality: senior management support; the right level of training for engineers, technicians and specialists; a root and branch review of business documentation; support from regulator Ofgem; and support from technology vendors, who need to develop and enhance the products and technologies to support operators.  


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