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Making the smart grid work

Supplier: Advantech Australia By: IP Huang, Advantech Corporation, Industrial Automation Group
23 June, 2010

In order to bring down the cost of supplying power and reduce the carbon footprint of the power industry worldwide, many governments and industries have been moving the transmission and distribution of electricity to a new "smart grid" model.

This model is expected to produce a real-time responsive electric system from power generation to end consumers.

The system design is intended to be quite different from the existing grid. From the consumer side, smart controls will report to the transmission and distribution system in real-time about usage and demand. The distribution grid will respond instantaneously to demand changes from both residential and industrial consumers, producing only enough electricity as is required on a real-time basis. The intent is to eliminate distribution power brown-outs as well as overproduction of electricity.

The consumer side will at first be largely industrial and commercial users such as process and discrete manufacturing plants and large commercial buildings. Eventually, most residential consumers will be retrofitted with "demand response" controls.

But the problem is that the electrical grid is by and large "stupid." That is, exactly as with industrial automation in the 1970s and 1980s, there are islands in the grid … substations, control systems, auxiliary generation equipment, load balancing systems, that are not fully interconnected in real-time to the rest of the grid.

What has been missing is the same thing that plagued automation systems in manufacturing - a common set of communication protocols and tools. In the final analysis, it isn't going to be Internet-enabled thermostats and billing meters that will assure the smart grid's success, it’s the rapid modernisation and interoperation of the transmission and distribution system itself.

The IEC 61850 Trend
More than 70% of the transmission infrastructure in the electric utilities in North America, Australia and Western Europe are over 25 years old. In India, China, the rest of Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe, the transmission infrastructure is either inadequate for today’s usage and tomorrow’s growth, or there is no infrastructure at all.

Because today's transmission and distribution grid grew piecemeal, it is a hodge-podge of different communication protocols and islands of control. Engineers with a lot of experience have been managing these conditions of legacy systems, with multiple and proprietary protocols, but these engineers are becoming unavailable.

Although we have a temporary reprieve in some cases due to the economic recession of 2009, we will continue to see a drain of talent but most of all experience, as older engineers and technicians leave the utility space by retiring. They've been able to keep the grid running because of their experiential learning rather than engineering design. The call for a Smart Grid is really a call for a more reliable and more automatic system for transmission and distribution of electricity.

In addition, the generation of electricity is becoming quite different. Multiple sources of in-feeds to the grid are being developed, including wind, solar, tidal, and cogeneration. The existing grid infrastructure was never intended to cope with these varying multiple sources that are less reliable than a string of conventional or nuclear power generation plants. But the emerging need for renewable energy sources, and Distributed Energy Resources, will make it necessary for the grid to be able to handle variable feeds from wind turbines, solar power plants, tidal power generators, from large customers pushing excess power back into the grid, and from small cogeneration plants that may or may not be regularly online.

This situation has led to the development of a global standard, IEC 61850, for communications between substations, internal communications within substations, and communications between various parts of the grid and the central control system for that portion of the grid.

The key benefits expected to derive from IEC 61850 are exceptional interconnectivity, using one worldwide protocol, along with easy interoperability between systems and devices from different vendors. A single common standard should also provide simple, easy to learn design and configuration tools and practices, as well as reliability and cost savings through higher availability of LAN and fiber optic networks.

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