What Drives the Business Case for IEC 61850?

Author: Eric Udren, Quanta Technology, USA

New parts are continuously being published as 61850 reaches across the transmission grid to generation sources, and out onto today’s DG-equipped distribution feeders.  I’m not being profound in forecasting that IEC 61850, as opposed to eventually being finished, must grow and branch forever to support the operation of our rapidly-evolving grids and businesses.

To grasp the business case and to succeed with the required organizational transformation we’ll highlight below, one must first understand that IEC 61850 is not just a communications protocol.  Its facets include all the elements listed in Figure 1:

  • Communications protocol layers and data configurations.
  • The modeling of each utility application as it interfaces to others.
  • Architecture of the ensemble of applications.
  • Architecture of communications layers on which models exchange information.
  • Engineering process that interconnects modeled applications on the modeled architecture with automated computing tools.
  • The elimination of long lists of individual signal points and unique behaviors.
  • Ethernet and optical fiber based communications network carries all operational exchanges.
  • GOOSE high-speed mission critical protection and control traffic to eliminate wiring.
  • A list of services to handle various utility PAC needs.
  • Coexistence of IEC 61850 and other applications on Ethernet networks.

While we discuss economic advantages below, IEC 61850 brings major changes in how the utility designs installations and conducts business.  Experience in North America has already shown how, without attention to the transformation, the benefits won’t be achieved.  Internationally, manufacturers with 61850 product lines have already fielded multiple generations and thousands of installations of substation P&C systems based on 61850.  Many of these are in turnkey substations where a single manufacturer has taken total responsibility for design, integration, and commissioning; and supports the purchasing utility through the life of the installation.
Utilities in North America have taken a more deliberate approach.  Most are accustomed to designing, integrating, and maintaining their own standard designs.  Risks and process change requirements of such a dramatically new technology clashed with inertial challenges of large established organizations. 

There were problematic trials in which imperfect first-generation IEC 61850 products showed interoperability challenges and were not well fitted to the old methods of P&C design and support.  At that time, IEC 61850 had its own problems - crudeness or malfunctions of integration tools; shortcomings of the Edition 1 standard, varying vendor implementations of specified application models (the logical nodes and their process interfaces), and unspecified implementation details of specified functions that were not interoperable. 

These issues had to be overcome - they occurred for reasons we understand and have been fixing.
Now senior management at an increasing number of companies want their conservative organizations and team members to plow ahead, solve the problems, and work to achieve the benefits.  As old designs become more costly and as the industry faces cost and revenue pressure, potential savings are hard for business leaders to ignore.  At the same time, IEC 61850 sees more acceptance at the engineering and first line management level due to generational change.

We have to face the business case question now.  The electric utility industry ultimately can’t support multiple design paths that are fundamentally incompatible. We’re talking no longer about competing vendor-specific protocols; the issue now is cost and difficulty of maintaining traditional and network-based P&C in the same organization. 
It’s not only that 61850 can be cheaper - although it has cost advantages - as that the way we have done P&C will become too expensive to sustain in parallel.

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