IEC 61850: could you live without it?

Find out how this standard is future-proofing our substations

One of the challenges of working in a high-tech sector is that you are surrounded by engineers who insist on giving technologies incomprehensible names. IEC 61850 is just one of these, a prime example of something that improves our lives without us even knowing that it exists, much less knowing what it stands for.

It’s actually just one of many international standards that ABB’s products and systems comply with, but it’s a very important one, especially if you, like most people in the world today, expect reliable electricity at the flick of a switch.

The IEC 61850 standard was published in 2004 to provide a standard approach to substation automation. It was developed by a team of more than 60 experts from across the industry, including technologists from ABB, brought together by the International Electrotechnical Commission, hence the IEC prefix. Since its inception, the standard has helped to improve the efficiency, reliability and cost-effectiveness of substations, key elements in the grid which monitor and control the flow of electricity (keeping the lights on for you and me).

Before this standardization, the world of substation technology was moving fast. Advances in electronics, information and communications technologies, and the arrival of software-controlled automation systems were changing the way we ran our grids. Manufacturers of substation devices took on the new technologies and great progress was made. Unfortunately, without an common standard, each manufacturer applied its own proprietary communications solutions for substation devices and grid operators were left with high-spec devices that wouldn’t talk to each other. This made it difficult for utilities to upgrade to the new technologies without adapting or tearing out existing equipment (an inelegant and potentially expensive option, familiar to those who have to buy a new charger every time they upgrade their mobile phone).

Pulling out perfectly functional equipment or installing multiple adapters to ensure that the most up to date technologies can be used is something no utility wants to do. Utilities want a long-term, flexible solution that will optimize costs by keeping the existing equipment running and enable stepwise improvements as new technologies become available. Enter the IEC standards team.

When the team first came together in the 1990s, they established three key aims for the new substation automation standard. Interoperability between devices was a major driver, but the solution also needed to meet the needs of whole substations in grid systems around the world (it’s called “international” for a reason). The third requirement was longevity. The lifetime of a substation is between 40 and 60 years and automation systems’ between 20 and 30 years. The standard needed to stand this time test. It needed to be “future proof.”

When the standard was eventually published, it had achieved these aims and was taken up with enthusiasm by the industry. Within two years, IEC 61850 was  the preferred communication protocol in substation automation markets, but the story didn’t end there. As technology continues to advance and new applications develop, so too does the standard. After multiple intermediates, including IEC 61850-9-2, the first commercial implementation of which was completed by ABB this year in Australia, the publication of IEC 61850 edition 2 is imminent.

IEC 61850 has demonstrated that it can reduce costs, improve reliability and enhance the efficiency of substations, ultimately raising the effectiveness of power grids around the world. This is good news for everyone from utilities to consumers and the environment. Like IEC 61850, mobile phones have revolutionized the markets they serve and carved out new ones, but perhaps they should take a leaf out of IEC’s book and think more about future proofing their technologies.

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ABB Review Special Report:  IEC 61850

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About the author

Sian Curtis

I am Communications Manager for ABB’s global Network Management Business unit. I joined ABB in 2006, working for corporate communications before joining Network Management in 2010. I have worked in publishing and corporate communications, in various countries, for the past 16 years.
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