Global Utility Telecommunications

April 1, 2013
Repeated studies conducted by Newton-Evans Research have found that, for the most part, North American utilities plan to stay with DNP3 as the protocol of choice for communications between control centers and substations, and down into the distribution network.

The Newton-Evans Research Co. identified a number of interesting findings from four of its recently completed studies on the electric power telecommunications usage patterns and trends:

  • “The World Market Study of SCADA, EMS, DMS and OMS in Electric Utilities: 2013-2015”

  • “Global Study of Data Communications Usage Patterns and Plans in the Electric Power Industry: 2011-2015”

  • “Worldwide Study of the Protective Relay Marketplace in Electric Utilities: 2012-2014”

  • “The World Market for Substation Automation and Integration Programs in Electric Utilities: 2011-2013.”

Following is a synopsis of the findings from those studies published during mid-2011 through February 2013.

Communication Methods

In January 2013, Newton-Evans released new information gleaned from more than 110 North American electric power utilities in its study of emergency management systems (EMS), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distribution management systems (DMS) and outage management systems (OMS). Based on the study, when it comes to wide-area communications methods used to connect EMS, SCADA and DMS systems to substations, 78% of responding utilities said they either currently use or plan to use at least some fiber to connect SCADA to substations.

The more critical the substation, the more likely fiber will be used, with redundancy provided by either another wire-line approach or some form of wireless technology. This usage pattern is followed by licensed radio (51% currently use this method and 5% more plan to use it by yearend 2015), unlicensed radio (38% currently use this method and 3% more plan to use it by 2015) and leased analog lines (41% currently use this method).

Utility cooperatives tend to use less fiber and more radio; only 48% of coops reported the use of some fiber to connect SCADA to substations. Given the lower customer density per line mile and per substation of coops than either investor-owned utilities or public power utilities, this makes sense. Investor-owned utilities use more of every available communications technology across the board.

In February 2013, Newton-Evans released its findings of international utility telecommunications usage patterns used in conjunction with EMS, SCADA and DMS. Of the international utilities responding to the survey, 91% said they currently use fiber to connect EMS, SCADA and DMS to substations. All 11 European utilities that responded to the survey use fiber, and 17 out of 18 utilities that responded from the Asia-Pacific region use some fiber as well.

In Latin America and the Middle East/Africa regions, microwave communications are used more often than in other parts of the world; 8 out of 12 utilities from Latin America and all four responding Middle East/Africa utilities reported use of microwave communications to connect SCADA with substations. Many of the utilities in these latter regions must span large distances between generation sites and distribution load centers. These findings are very similar to the observations reported in several other recently completed Newton-Evans studies.

Communications Protocol Usage

In late 2012, Newton-Evans Research Co. spoke with the president of the DNP3 user group, H. Lee Smith, concerning the outlook for continued distributed network protocol (DNP) development versus efforts for expanding the use of 61850. It certainly appears the ongoing collaborative efforts within the DNP organization, working with IEEE and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), will provide a road map for a translation/mapping capability between these two widely used protocols.

On June 28, 2010, IEEE announced a new collaboratively developed DNP standard that would benefit the worldwide smart grid and process automation industries. IEEE ratified the old DNP3 standard and gave it a new label: IEEE 1815.

When evaluating the outlook for IEC 61850 adoption among North American utilities, it is important to understand the rationale for continuing to rely on and extend the use of DNP3. There are several reasons for this seeming lag between standards available from the IEC and IEEE, and the speed of electric utility adoption in North America.

North American vs. International Utilities

First, the size differential between major utilities in North America and many of the top 100 international utilities is vast, with North American utilities being smaller than many of their international counterparts that serve entire nations or very large regions within a nation. Second, capital and human resource availability are provided, or sought after, on a different basis internationally than in North America. Third, there have been no national or transnational telecommunications policy directives developed that carry as much weight as those in Europe and elsewhere. North American utilities also specify and procure equipment, systems, communications and software differently than is the practiced internationally.

With this as background, repeated studies conducted by Newton-Evans Research have found that, for the most part, North American utilities plan to stay with DNP3 as the protocol of choice for communications between control centers and substations, and down into the distribution network. Nonetheless, 20 of the 25 largest utilities have plans to implement at least a few modules of 61850 from 2013 to 2015.

If an analogy is made that DNP3 is a lovely rose, then it also could be said that IEC 61850 is a floral bouquet, offering an array of communications-centered data-handling services for the increasingly complex substation environment. The only problem with this analogy is most utilities today cannot arrange flowers very well, but those with transmission assets can certainly choose one or more of the components of 61850, such as GOOSE messaging, process bus and even substation configuration language, to their benefit.

Finally, the two charts above compare recent findings among North American and international utilities regarding IEC 61850 use. In the top figure, note the difference in the use of 61850 component modules, indicating limited North American use of available 61850 modules compared to those used internationally. GOOSE messaging capability is, by far, the most popular 61850 component used by North American utilities. In the lower figure, note the stark differences in the extent of 61850 usage patterns in substations as of mid-2012.

2011-2012 2013-2015 Still in embryonic status, moving to emerging status In the developing market phase Large utilities investigating, experimenting with at least some modules; many using GOOSE, process bus Field deployments underway, with perhaps 350 to 500 substations operating with 61850; the majority will be new construction, with most of these being EHV high-voltage substations A few (<100) 61850 substation automation rollouts underway; the majority of new substations being planned for 2011-2013 will include at least some 61850 components/modules Mapping of DNP3 into IEC 61850 will enable mid-sized utilities to realize some benefits for distribution automation communications coming into the substation; GOOSE messaging will be widely used among early adapters 20-plus major utilities now belong to the UCA2 user group (could be viewed as the North American 61850 fan club) Use of third-party services from SISCO, Kinectrics, Triangle MicroWorks, Tamarack Consulting, UTInnovation and other specialist consultants expands to additional field engineering, installation and equipment/ communications testing services Use of third-party services for education, initial round of consulting, training and support DNP 3 will continue to dominate the growing DA communications installations and will continue to be implemented in medium-voltage substations; DNP3 continues to evolve with active user group



Kinectrics |

Newton-Evans |


Tamarack |

Triangle MicroWorks |

UTInnovation |

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