Nov Article Graphic Digitally Connected Equipment Courtesy Siemens

The Bits And Pieces Are Getting Smarter

Nov. 20, 2020
We’re taking the guess work out of conditional awareness.

It’s been said that digital technologies are breathing life into the electric grid. It’s also been said that electricity is breathing life into digital technologies. What makes this paradox interesting is the fact that digital technology and the power delivery system have such a symbiotic relationship. In today’s world, neither one can function very well without the other and together they are providing us with tools for the dynamic operation of the power grid.

It’s important to understand that the goal is improving the electrical power system by making it smarter, and there are several avenues available for this process. One of the more interesting approaches comes from the substation equipment manufacturers. They are taking advantage of some cutting-edge digital technologies to make the substation’s bits and pieces smarter building blocks for developing more flexible applications.

Adding to the challenge is the impact of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Today business as usual has a different definition. Utilities have been required to move personnel offsite and limit their interactions with the public. Demand for electricity has also changed with a shifting from commercial and industrial (C&I) customers to the residential sector. These unanticipated conditions have resulted in a great deal of discussion about the condition of the electric grid, its ability to operate, and its capability to meet the demands of this new normal.

Digital Investments

Halfway through the year, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) published its “2020 Summer  Reliability Assessment.” NERC’s report said there were no specific reliability issues identified, although NERC felt there were elevated levels of risk due to the pandemic. While the report eased some tensions, it raised another critical question: Would the pandemic stop the deployment of these smart grid technologies as utilities coped with new challenges?

Around the time NERC’s report was released, Newton-Evans Research Company, Inc. published the results of its grid modernization study. The study found that even with the pandemic, 48% of the utilities it surveyed are planning to launch smart grid projects either in 2020 or 2021. Those results say a great deal about the value of modern digital technology to the stakeholders of the power delivery system.

Let’s backtrack a little and discuss grid modernization. Modernization is all about putting intelligence into all areas of the grid. Digitalization is the key to making the grid more intelligent. The grid needs intelligent electric devices (IEDs) connected in a network providing real-time data 24/7.

Manufacturers such as Eaton, GE  Digital, Hitachi ABB Power Grids, Mitsubishi Electric, S&C, Schneider Electric, Siemens Energy, and other suppliers are integrating the IEDs into all points of the grid’s substations. It’s the mixing of operational technology (OT) and informational technology (IT) and the convergence is producing a cyber-physical world.

Cyber Apps

Grid automation applications and their many offshoots are benefiting from the IED deployment. Smarter apps give utilities a significant operational advantage, including improved COVID-19 response efforts. Smarter products allow utilities to scale backfield operations while improving service. One example is the advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) platform. They have increased connectivity when it’s needed most.

These ADMS platforms are taking advantage of the IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) and cognitive computing — a.k.a. artificial intelligence (AI). The idea is to combine several standalone applications like the outage management system, the network management system, and the demand response system. By combining the functionality of these systems, with AI, the platform reduces outages and restores service, and improves customer relations without human action.

Another application improving remote operations is the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems. AMI gives utilities the ability to look behind-the-meter (BTM), which also helps with today’s health concerns. It reduces the need for utility personnel and the customer to meet. AMI reads meters, turns on service, or turns it off without a rollout. It has also proven invaluable when it comes to distributive energy resources (DER), which commercial and residential customers have embraced.

The customer has become the prosumer with the advent of DER technology, which brought about bi-directional power flows on the grid. DER integrates variable inverter-based resources such as photovoltaics (PVs) and microgrids at the load. Because they have gotten so plentiful, they require the distributed energy management systems (DERMS) technology to manage this dynamic segment of the grid.


Infusing all of this digital intelligence in the components of the power delivery system’s substations has resulted in greater diversity. Substations act as hubs that collect electricity and redistribute it across the electric network. Today they are producing big-data as well.

Manufacturers, utilities, and operators began asking themselves what if these components were also built with interconnectivity in mind? What if the IIoT technology was designed into the apparatus as an integral part and not an add-on to the control systems? What if a interconnected grid was the norm and utilities could take advantage of real-time management platforms?

A recent discussion with Puneet Singh, vice president digitalization at Siemens Energy Transmission, and Matthias Heinecke, head of product digitalization switching products at Siemens Energy Transmission, shed light on the benefits of the company’s connective substation portfolio. By having connectivity built into the individual transmission products, Siemens Energy is bringing in a new level of digitalization.

Singh explained, “Siemens started with a plan of converting the substation into a data hub, providing additional system intelligence. In 2018, we introduced Sensformer, which placed the digitalization where we felt it will do the most good: in our transformers. Today over 500 Sensformers have been delivered and are proving the concept of connective transmission products.”

Singh continued by saying, “This was followed in 2019 when Siemens introduced Sensgear, which added digital connectivity to all main substation assets allowing operators to check their status via online applications in near real-time. Siemens’ philosophy is that 20% of the transmission equipment should be able to tell 80% of most important events taking place in the substation. This approach is quicker and more efficient than trying to instrument 100% of the station equipment.”

As the discussion continued, Heinecke pointed out, “By designing the digital technology as an integral part of the device it puts the intelligent sensors exactly where they are needed. In effect, the technology has the potential to turn the substation into a digital twin, which is basically a digital copy of real asset. With this technology transmission grid operators are enabled to better operate the equipment and act on varying stress levels caused by volatile loads and generation. Having these devices digitalized gives the utility an excellent view of the impacts on the life of the equipment.”

Extending Reality

With more and more IIoT-capable equipment being deployed on the grid, the digital substation’s focus has shifted from the controls to the total facility. These digitalized substations are capable of being part of a virtual network brought about by digital twinning.  

With all these smarter bits and pieces, multiple substations can form a common network connected through digital twin technology supplying customized services. It is a flexible infrastructure designed for better resilience and boost the grid’s efficiency. With the aid of AI, the complicated electric grid can be easily simplified.

AI takes complex big-data and simplifies it into actionable information, which provides the platform with the ability to improve the operation of the assets. Throw in cloud-based computing services and it improves big-data analytics. These combinations provide a situational awareness to the electric grid’s 21st century substation.

As this trend continues, the grid-reliability capabilities of digital substation’s systems and platforms increase. These systems reduce the amount of effort required to manage critical grid resources, which can refocus vital human resources to the more efficient operation of the network.

One example of this is GE’s approach to the digital substation with the IEC 61850 process bus. The process bus moves data from the smarter equipment into the control room on fiber optic cables, which simplifies the substation’s architecture. Gone are the miles of copper control cable replaced by digital directness.

Another smart application comes from Hitachi ABB Power Grids for AI-enhanced edge-deployed digital twin technology that operates in real-time. Solar inverters are a good example of this. These devices use AI cloud-assisted analytics to provide ancillary services such as voltage and frequency regulation, power factor correction, and reactive power control.  

Schneider Electric, Bentley Systems, and Microsoft have formed a partnership to developed what they call a digital twin “living blueprint.” This smart application is designed for C&I smart building owner’s to use technology to improve energy efficiency.

The power delivery industry has gone digital just like the rest of the world and technology enabled substations are one of the key elements of the digital grid. These intelligent substations are moving the grid toward its goal of being self-managed and self-aware. A lot of experts say we need a more flexible and more intelligent grid. These smarter substation components are making the grid super-smart!

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