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Energy Central Power Perspectives: Enhanced IEC 61850 Process for Utilities: Exclusive Interview with Thomas Sterckx of Elia

image credit: Thomas Sterckx

The international standard IEC 61850 defines communication protocols for smart devices attached to electrical substations, meaning this important protocol is only going to become more and more important as time goes on. Grid technology is implementing smart functions for balancing supply and demand, ensuring reliability, and more, and the establishment of IEC 61850 has been (and will continue to be) integral to that process.

IEC 61850 has attracted such attention and focus by forward-looking energy companies seeking to stay ahead of the curve on the digital utility transformation that SmartGrid is again hosting the IEC 61850 Global 2019 Conference. One of the esteemed speakers at this event will be Thomas Sterckx, an IEC 61850 expert with Elia, presenting on the Osmose Process, an Enhanced IEC 61850 Engineering Process.

As the IEC 61850 Global 2019 Conference approaches, Thomas agreed to share with Energy Central his background and insights on this increasingly important field:

Matt Chester: Can you start by giving a background of who you are and what led you on the path to being an IEC 61850 expert? And what’s your role in implementing IEC 61850 solutions at Elia?

Thomas Strerckx: My name is Thomas Sterckx, I am 34 years old, I live in Belgium in a small countryside town called Gooik, about 30 kilometers east from Brussels. I’m married, have 2 cats, and in my spare time I like to run and cycle. In 2007, I received my master’s degree in industrial engineering. The first years of my career I worked for a contractor that specializes in installing secondary, low voltage equipment in high voltage substations. First, I worked for four years as a project leader, the last two years I was responsible for the designers drawing the electrical wiring diagrams. Our main client back then was Elia, but we also worked for other industrial clients. It was via those industrial clients that I discovered IEC 61850 and its potential. We even did a small offline pilot project internally, IEC 61850 edition 1, to get more familiar with its technology and devices.

Driven by my interest in the way SPACS systems work, I was happy to get the opportunity to work for Elia in the Engineering Secondary Systems department. I was able to extend my IEC 61850 knowledge the last few years as a technical representative of Elia in the IEC 61850 ad hoc taskforce of ENTSO-E and during IEC 61850 WG10 meetings, a process I would continue after a transfer to the Engineering Expertise Secondary Systems department in June 2018.

With the preparation of our new SPACS frame agreement and the introduction of IEC 61850 in the Elia systems, I’m working together with other motivated and like-minded colleagues in the IEC 61850 stream, where we ensure the current and future IEC 61850 implementation is a success. We are focusing not only on the deployment of the new technology, but also on creating a solid engineering process to support it at all steps from specification to commissioning.

 

MC: You’re going to be speaking about the importance of flexible solutions and interoperability in IEC 61850 solutions. Why are these ideals important to the utility sector and how far behind is the industry as a whole from where you think it should be?

TS: One of the biggest challenges for utilities is the fact that, after installing a new system, utilities need to support that system for the next 20 to 30 years. It is very important for utilities that when, for example, after 15 years an IED in that system needs to be replaced by another newer one from another manufacturer, this remains possible without a big impact on the rest of the system. With hardwired interfaces, this is less of an issue, but in a digital substation this quickly becomes complex. This, and many other scenarios within the day-to-day maintenance of the substation, require interoperable and interchangeable devices and tools to make it work, with a focus on backwards compatibility.

Another important constraint for utilities like Elia is that when installing multivendor systems, these projects require high flexibility during project planning. Many different system parts are built and tested in a different factory and arrive at different times on site. But when we connect everything together, we want to make sure all system parts blend together without issues. This means that testing tools play also an important role in the process. I for one am convinced that, in order to overcome all these challenges, we require three things.

First, we need devices that support full flexible naming of the IED data model, in this way a device can support any model used in the past and will be ready for the future. Secondly, we require tools to specify data flow between functions and devices in a vendor independent way and make it possible to map this to real physical IEDs which support these specifications. Thirdly, tools are required to test the engineers work along all these steps, with focus on a user friendly interface and the ability to simulate any element of the system.

At Elia we conclude that today the IEC 61850 standard, tools and devices don’t have the maturity yet to fully support this process, but projects such as Osmose can facilitate and accelerate this.

MC: How does the rise of interoperable frameworks impact the ability for the grid to be more resilient and reliable?

TS: Being able to mix solutions from different vendors in a system lowers the risk of common mode failures. Being able to engineer, configure and maintain these systems in an easy and flexible way increases the reliability even more. I believe this is where the focus for future developments of the standard should be, improving and enabling this process, with a focus on the communication between devices.

 

MC: Aside from your presentation, what are the topics or specific speakers that you’re more excited to hear more from while you’re at the IEC 61850 Global 2019 Conference?

TS: I’m interested in hearing the feedback from users implementing multivendor IEC 61850 solutions and the challenges they faced in getting there.  I’m also interested in all presentations on the engineering process, especially solutions with vendor independent specifications, and the tools that are used to support this.


If you’re interested in hearing more about Thomas’s insights into IEC 61850, be sure to check out his presentation at the IEC 61850 Global 2019 conference, taking place from October 14 to 18 in London. You can check out the agenda and register for the conference here.

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