Leveraging Open-Source Tools to Monitor and Control DERs Over Communication Networks: Exclusive Interview with Steven Blair, Lecturer at University of Strathclyde - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: Steven Blair
Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Oct 9, 2019

The rise in the importance of digital tools in the utility industry has opened up countless doors, but it also naturally brings with it some challenges and key considerations. The need for standardization across the industry is just one such factor that becomes more critical to consider in a digitized utility, a concept that drives meetings like the upcoming IEC 61850 Global 2019 Conference.

At this conference, the possibilities opened up by open-source tools in controlling and monitoring distributed energy resources (DERs) will be among those ideas taking center stage, and Steven Blair, a Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, will be sharing his insights in his presentation entitled “Open-Source IEC 61850: Leveraging open-source tools to monitor and control DERs over communication networks.”

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If you just can’t wait until next week to hear about this exciting topic and to give attendees of the IEC 61850 conference a preview of what they can expect, Steven shared some insights in an interview with me to share with the Energy Central community:

Matt Chester: To start and give the readers some context about you and your experience, can you describe what your role is at the University of Strathclyde and how you got involved in IEC 61850 and the utility sector generally?

Steven Blair: I’m a Lecturer, equivalent to an assistant professor, at the University of Strathclyde, so my job mainly involves teaching and R&D in power system protection, measurement, and communications technologies. A few years ago, I created a software library for implementing the IEC 61850 protocols, which I released as open-source; at the time, no other open-source options existed. This gained a lot of use in our own laboratory, as well as in several R&D projects in other institutes, and a company even used this to help accelerate a product prototype. I’ve also joined IEC TC57 WG10, which creates and manages the IEC 61850 standards. We aim for our work at Strathclyde to be very industry-focused, so we tend to demonstrate solutions to a relatively high technology readiness level (TRL), so that they are practical for utilities to adopt.


 MC: You’re going to be presenting about the importance of open-source tools in the utility industry—how important is it that modern utilities recognize and embrace the importance of open-source tools compared with the non-open-source methods that have been used in the path?


SB: I think it’s fair to say that open source tools can be a bit of a mixed bag, especially for relatively niche applications. However, there are some excellent tools out there. I’m sure many power system analysts will be familiar with MATPOWER, PYPOWER, and OpenDSS, and there are other popular and useful tools such as CIMTool and libiec61850. A few universities and other institutes have also done a great job of open sourcing large amounts of work: UC Berkeley, PNNL, NIST, RWTH ERC, Fraunhofer, KTH, and more.

I think there’s a good opportunity for utilities to have their essential and future software needs being developed as open-source projects, rather than having bespoke or proprietary solutions. It helps with creating a commonality between different companies and interoperability between other tools, as developers can see exactly how different components work.

At the very least, open-sourcing allows research projects that would otherwise be hidden or lost to be archived and have some longevity – the work may help someone else later.

MC: These open-source tools are particularly important, in your view, when it comes to controlling DERs. What is it about DERs that make this shift more necessary and what are the inherent challenges such DER systems bring about?

SB: DERs can have a grassroots approach through community energy projects. This lends itself to a more open and decentralized approach to power system operation and markets than we are typically used to, and this is analogous to how open source projects can evolve. We need interoperability between software tools, such as for control, protection, and trading, so using fully open tools can help in this regard.

In particular, having open-source reference implementations of communications protocols is very valuable for researchers and companies to start building projects because it accelerates innovation, even if the final products use closed-source implementations.


MC: When utilizing open-source tools for the power industry, especially with massive amounts of data and sharing over communication networks, does that present any unique new opportunities for cybersecurity concerns? How are those risks weighed against the benefits of this shift?

SB: The common argument here is that open-source software potentially has more “eyes” looking at the code, which helps to spot and eliminate vulnerabilities. There are also lots of existing, non-power system open source projects for encryption, VPNs, etc. which can be used, rather than starting from nothing (and perhaps making some implementation mistakes – as this is a complex domain). With closed-source products, the utility must trust that the vendor did not, intentionally or otherwise, leave backdoors or other vulnerabilities. We’ve seen in the past that major vulnerabilities have been found, such as a protection relay exploit used in the 2016 Ukraine blackout. In either case, however, it’s worth pointing out that patching substation devices with new firmware can be very challenging and time-consuming.


MC: If you could share one thing with utility professionals who aren’t as knee-deep in this world of IEC 61850 and open-sources tools as you are, what would that be? What do you hope they come away with after reading this?

SB: Just to be vocal about what they need from vendors and their tools, and any difficulties that they experience in implementing these systems. That way, the tools can improve, and the standards bodies can also benefit from this end-user guidance.


MC: Are there any other topics you’re particularly excited to learn about and watch presentations on at the IEC 61850 conference?

Yes, there are certain participants who have a long history of delivering engaging and entertaining presentations. So, I expect that day 2 will not be boring! In seriousness, there are several issues to be worked through, such as cost, training, and quality tools, and I’m sure that this event will help to address these.


If you’re interested in hearing more about Steven’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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Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Oct 9, 2019

Outstanding article, Matt. I totally agree with this: "patching substation devices with new firmware can be very challenging and time-consuming."

Heck, it can be "challenging" just getting a new FPGA bitstream to work properly on an ICE40 sitting right beside my computer!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 9, 2019

There's certainly no shortages of new challenges in this 'new' utility industry! But as long as we have dedicated people like Steven and you working on it, I have confidence the right technologies and strategies will continue to win out

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