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Why power utilities are embracing IEC 61850

Side view of two people in a control room

Power utilities everywhere are evolving their operations to adapt to new customer demands, a fast-moving energy technology landscape and increasing regulatory requirements around sustainability. This evolution is making electric grids more complex and dynamic. At the same time, legacy TDM-based communication technologies are beyond end of support. Many utilities are turning to the IEC 61850 standard to digitalize and automate their grids.

Why IEC 61850? And why now?

The IEC 61850 standard was introduced two decades ago for substation automation and has evolved and greatly expanded in scope through several iterations. Now that its reach extends across the grid, more utilities are paying attention.

IEC 61850 originally aimed to improve the interoperation of equipment from different vendors within electrical substations. It models every substation component based on industry standards to create a comprehensive definition of how a substation should look and behave. All IEC 61850 models use protocols that run on IP or Ethernet networks.

These standardized models make it easy for utilities to innovate and bring advanced automation into the substation and across the grid. They also help utilities build greater efficiency, availability and resiliency into their power system designs. Utilities that embrace these models have more flexibility to meet any new demand, whether it’s speeding up DER integration, supporting more electric vehicle (EV) charging stations or responding to failures more effectively.

Utilities can also use IEC 61850 as a foundation for a virtualized or containerized cloud compute environment that consolidates and simplifies the management of protection, automation and control system (PACS) software inside substations. EVs, electrified transit systems and digital commerce data centers will drive up demand for electricity and make distribution even more complex. This PACS-to-cloud approach will help utilities cut through this complexity, reduce the number of devices to manage and lower OPEX.

With IEC 61850 as a key enabler for digital grid infrastructure, TDM communication networks can no longer provide the scalable and dynamic multiservice connectivity utilities need. Utilities must embrace a new communications infrastructure that links IEC 61850 assets across the grid, on utility poles in the last mile distribution system and inside the substation to software applications in the control center and data center.

Are utilities ready for IEC 61850?

The drivers and benefits of IEC 61850 adoption are clear. So what steps are utilities taking to make it happen?

During a recent IEC 61850-focused webinar, we asked utilities from Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Americas to tell us how much of their substation protection and control infrastructure is now based on Ethernet or IP.

The results weren’t surprising. More than three-quarters said they have moved none or a small proportion of their protection and control systems to Ethernet or IP. However, almost a quarter have already packetized a majority of these systems and are positioned to capitalize on IEC 61850.

Poll: What proportion of your substation protection and control systems are already based on Ethernet or IP?

Figure 1

We also asked attendees to tell us about their substation virtualization plans. The results were positive, with more than 60 percent of attendees saying they are already trying out virtualization.

Poll: Are you considering substation modernization using virtualization technology? What is the state of your endeavor?

Figure 2

These polls tell us that utilities recognize the importance of embracing the latest compute and communications technologies, which are fundamental building blocks for IEC 61850-based power grids.

A third poll made it clear that utilities are using these building blocks. Sixty-five percent told us they are already working with IEC 61850. Another 18 percent plan to start within the next two years. Only 13 percent don’t yet have a plan for IEC 61850.

Poll: When will your organization start to work with IEC 61850 in live grid deployment or lab testing?

Figure 3

IEC 61850 implementation challenges

Utilities need to address some significant implementation challenges to get value from IEC 61850. The key challenges include:

  • Time synchronization: Many IEC 61850 applications rely on time-sensitive protocols such as GOOSE and Sampled Values. Utilities need solutions that can accurately and reliably distribute time synchronization across the WAN to the substation LAN using the power utility flavor of IEEE 1588.

  • New bandwidth demands: IEC 61850-enabled protection and control systems as well as monitoring applications such as synchrophasor will consume higher bandwidth than traditional systems such as SCADA. Together with new substation IT systems such as CCTV, the aggregated communication of substation rings could take bandwidth requirements beyond 1 Gb/s. Utilities will need networks that can seamlessly scale to meet these demands.

  • New expertise, more teamwork: IEC 61850 requires multidisciplinary implementation and new types of expertise. Utilities need their application, development, data center networking and security teams to work together with support from a strong telecom team that can manage networks and connectivity across the WAN, field area network (FAN) and substation LAN.

A communications infrastructure blueprint for IEC 61850

We have developed an IP/MPLS communications infrastructure blueprint that enables utilities to address these challenges and use all the capabilities of IEC 61850 to build software-centric, data-driven grids. This full-scale, end-to-end blueprint extends connectivity from IEDs on poles and in substations, from the FAN and the substation LAN, across the WAN, and all the way to a data center fabric connected with IEC 61850 applications.

  • Substation LAN: The blueprint uses different sizes of hardened Ethernet switches to meet the connectivity needs of substation buses. It supports substation assets with protocols such as Sampled Values and GOOSE, synchrophasor, interlocking and busbar protection.

  • Converged FAN: IP/MPLS riding over wireless access extends IEC 61850 from the substation to distribution circuit domains. This enables utilities to support applications such as falling conductor protection (FCP), volt/VAR optimization (VVO), Fault Location, Isolation and Restoration (FLISR) and direct transfer trip (DTT).

  • Mission-critical WAN: An IP/MPLS WAN connects substations to support applications such as differential protection, distribution automation, synchrophasor, power quality and fault location. All applications run on one signaling protocol and support one signaling type. The IP/MPLS WAN also extends mission-critical connectivity all the way to the data and control centers.

  • Data center fabric: The blueprint enables mission-critical data center networking that connects operational technology (OT) application software running in a dedicated compute pool (known as the OT cloud) to IEDs and relays across the grid with OT-class reliability and security. Operating within a cloud paradigm, it enables the virtualization required for successful IEC 61850 implementation.

Find out more

Visit us at DISTRIBUTECH International (booth 1901) in Orlando from 27–29 February. We’ll show you how our IEC 61850 communication infrastructure supports virtualized protection systems and hitless differential protection failover.

Watch our on-demand webinar to learn more about why and how utilities are using IEC 61850 to digitalize and automate their grids.

Listen to our interview with the Energy Transitions Podcast to find out how IEC 61850 is revolutionizing the utility industry.

Hansen Chan

About Hansen Chan

Hansen Chan is an IP Product Marketing Manager with a special focus on digital industries and government. With over three decades of experience, he has collaborated with critical infrastructure and telecom network operators, specializing in protocol testing, network architecture and product management, and in his current role in product marketing. He also holds a number of patents.

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