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The future of digital substations

image credit: © Nikma1953 | Dreamstime.com

This item is part of the Advances in Utility Digitalization - Special Issue - 10/2020, click here for more

The energy market is rapidly changing. In the past several years, power grids have transformed from a few well-controlled generating units to multiple distributed energy resources connected to a vast system managed by increasingly digital solutions. Most all utilities agree this change is the fundamental shift impacting today’s power grid. 

With this change comes many challenges – but also opportunities. As the grid becomes more decentralized, energy companies must be agile and tap into the grid’s rapid digital transformation. In doing so, they will give themselves competitive advantages and resilience for future disruption. 

To adapt to the grid of the future, companies must enable a smarter, stronger, and greener grid. One important aspect of this transformation involves digitalizing substations and continuously innovating new applications and approaches to automating or protecting and controlling the power network. This includes protecting people and their assets in the grid.  

Digital Substation 101 

The first digital substation was operationalized in 2011. Incorporating digital technology into power grids bridges the gap between the analog and digital equipment and allows utilities and grid operators to optimize and improve the efficiency of their power systems. 

With a power grid’s various analog and digital communications and control networks, digital technology offers an interoperable layer supported by mission-critical communications equipment. Utilities can simplify designs by connecting various technology pieces while taking full advantage of their capabilities, such as packet-switched networks and maintaining full control over mission-critical applications. Digital technology is also key when integrating increasing amounts of energy from renewable sources into the grid. Creating efficiencies within digital substations is critical as more renewable generation sources come online and place new demands on utility infrastructure. 

More Data, Better Outcomes  

Aside from providing better connectivity, digital substations offer a host of maintenance benefits and provide greater visibility of the power network through increased data. 

With digital technology, utilities can digitize and gather information about the various parameters affecting the assets in the grid, thereby facilitating quick decision making under different circumstances. For example, if there are environmental or weather conditions at play, utilities can assess and determine if or how to overload the transformer accordingly to allow more decision time in operating the grid. 

Most importantly, grid operators can use this data surge to improve business efficiencies. By gathering and harvesting mounds of data, companies become ready for future applications and long-term returns on investment by analyzing information to make better business decisions. 

The Future of Substation Innovation 

Many utilities are already benefiting from the enhanced efficiencies created by digital substations in the field today. However, there are additional benefits based on the collection of higher-resolution data from monitoring primary assets. Utilities often lose visibility at lower voltage levels in the distribution network. This can be improved by automating or monitoring smaller distribution substations.

Going forward, utilities will need to enable network control systems to get more insights on the power grid’s stability, build in real-time communication between devices and build protection schemes that go across substations.
 
Energy companies will also need to prioritize cybersecurity. Digital solutions and services must continuously maintain and expand their infrastructure’s lifetime while ensuring the existing digital solution remains robust and secure from cyberattacks.
 
Power grids around the world are moving toward increased connectivity – and the more these systems become interconnected, the stronger the grid becomes. In the not-so-distant future, it isn’t hard to imagine a European grid further expanding its connectivity into the Middle East or China to enable a super grid, for example.
 
This will open the door to endless grid possibilities. Utilities can better adapt to renewable energy. They can predict outages well in advance, possibly saving lives. And most importantly, they can take major steps in combating climate change and overhauling systems to focus on renewable energy, digitalization and decarbonization.

Claus Vetter's picture

Thank Claus for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 1, 2020 1:53 pm GMT

In the not-so-distant future, it isn’t hard to imagine a European grid further expanding its connectivity into the Middle East or China to enable a super grid, for example.

This type of future seems fascinating-- what sort of new markets would that create? Geopolitical implications? There's so much to think about!

Claus Vetter's picture
Claus Vetter on Oct 21, 2020 10:41 am GMT

Thanks, Matt. The widespread digitalization of power grids is enabling new possibilities and futures for the global power industry. It’s also bringing forth some very interesting concepts in connecting and securing these grids and the substations that support it.

 

The technology to support this change exists and we are already seeing customers exploring such concepts across the world.

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