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The Challenge of Substation Modernization

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Julian Jackson is a writer whose interests encompass business and technology, cryptocurrencies, energy and the environment, as well as photography and film. His portfolio is here:...

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One little-discussed area of transmission architecture is substations. Proverbially, fish don't notice water because it is everywhere to them, so perhaps transmission professionals and utilities don't take sufficient notice of substations.

As we move along the way to net zero carbon emissions, we will need to upgrade and modernize the infrastructure. This will mean big changes as more renewables and DERs disrupt the conventional power station to substation to consumer architecture. This will involve bidirectional, distributed generation, where electricity can flow both ways.

Unfortunately this will add intermittency to the system. For every renewable energy input coming into the grid, instability will increase by at least a three-fold factor. As more DERs are added to the power network, instabilities are will create more problems of voltage and frequency fluctuation, as well as power factor issues. Unfortunately conventional, legacy technologies which we currently use to manage the grid will likely prove insufficient to surmount these new challenges.

We will need to develop a new architecture that can overcome these obstacles by seamlessly integrating all renewables into the grid using software-connected infrastructure to communicate effectively.

Current substation architecture is somewhat obsolescent, with most of the hardware and software being specific to one task. This lacks flexibility and is not congruent with what we will need with an upgraded bidirectional grid. So a large and important task is modernizing the substation infrastructure.

This will involved much advanced software, and virtualization so that units can communicate in many different ways with other parts of the system. The new approach is to have a single application in the data center and the substation that can run real-time and non-real-time workloads, or be a virtual power station. In the grid of the future, each substation will be an intelligent hub. By utilizing advanced AI software, and next-generation device management, this area of the power industry can be a pioneer of the bidirectional grid, not a problem that is causing the upgrading project to fall short of its ambitions.

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