Editorial Opinions

Editorial – Issue 066 December 2023

The Global Experience with IEC 61850 based Digital Substations

by Alex Apostolov, Editor-in-Chief

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Wherever we look around us we can see the digital transformation of all aspects of our lives and the electric power industry is no exception. 

IEC 61850 has been available for two decades and many utilities around the world have been in different stages of implementing it in an effort to improve the efficiency, security and reliability of their power grids. At the same time many are still wondering if they should do it or not 

The best way to move forward is by learning from our experiences by analyzing our successes and failures, but we can also always learn from the experiences of others. That is why we decided to focus this issue of the magazine on the experiences of different players throughout the years that they share in the articles published here. 

One of the most significant sources of information related to our effort is the work done by CIGRE working group B5 69 which is reflected in the cover story of this issue. Other articles cover topics such as the testing of digital substations, the utility experience of the digital transformation and the manufacturer experience in the development of centralized and virtualized protection automation and control systems.

Traditional substations, filled with copper wires and analog devices, have been the backbone of power systems for decades. However, with the changing energy landscape – characterized by the integration of renewables, demand for distributed generation, and the need for improved reliability – the limitations of traditional substations became increasingly evident. This highlighted the need for a shift to digital, and IEC 61850 emerged as the cornerstone technology of this transformation.

European nations have been early adopters of the IEC 61850 standard, driven by their commitment to sustainability, smart grids, and energy transition. Countries in Europe have seen utilities that not only implemented but also championed the benefits of digital substations. The increased integration of renewable energy sources, particularly in Northern Europe, necessitated the need for more flexible and adaptable grid infrastructure – a demand met by IEC 61850 based systems.

The United States and Canada have also shown significant interest in digital substations. Regulatory push, combined with technological advancements, has driven the adoption. Utilities have found it especially useful to enhance grid reliability, reduce operational costs, and integrate vast renewable energy sources.

In the Asia-Pacific rapid urbanization, especially in countries like China and India, has meant that the demand for efficient power systems is more pressing than ever. These nations, alongside others in the region, are gradually witnessing the proliferation of digital substations. The emphasis here is on improving system reliability, catering to the burgeoning urban population, and ensuring grid stability in the face of diverse energy sources.

The adoption of digital substations in Latin America and Africa has been relatively slower compared to Europe or North America, but there is a growing realization of the potential of digital substations. Several pilot projects and collaborations with global entities are underway, setting the foundation for broader implementation in the near future.

Across the globe, utilities that have transitioned to IEC 61850 based digital substations cite multiple advantages. Improvements in efficiency and reliability are the result of reduced wiring which leads to fewer connection points, thus minimizing potential faults.

The significant reduction in copper wiring and associated Installation and maintenance lowers capital and operational costs. One of the cornerstone benefits is the ability to integrate devices from various manufacturers, ensuring flexibility and vendor neutrality. As utilities evolve, digital substations based on IEC 61850 offer the ability to scale seamlessly, accommodating future grid requirements.

While the benefits are manifold, utilities globally have also faced some challenges. The shift to digital substations requires a new set of skills and expertise, which necessitates training and capacity-building initiatives. For many utilities, the challenge lies in seamlessly integrating the new digital infrastructure with existing analog systems.

Digital substations, while efficient, also present a larger surface for potential cyber threats, requiring strengthened security measures.

What is encouraging is that the global experience with IEC 61850 based digital substations is a testament to the power industry’s adaptability and resilience. While the pace of adoption varies, the unanimous consensus is towards the undeniable advantages these substations bring. As the world moves forward in its energy systems digital transformation, the experience shows that the role of IEC 61850 in shaping an efficient, reliable and sustainable power infrastructure is central and significant.  

Albert Einstein