Creating smarter networks through automation of complex power infrastructure

The world’s power distribution network is expanding every day to cope with increased demand, decentralized generation and expanding network complexity

Electricity’s share in total energy consumption is expected to rise from 19% in 2018 to 24% in 2040, with strong growth in developing countries1.

Today’s environment is far more complex and dynamic than it was 20 years ago. There used to be individual power plants which knew the parameters of their network. Utilities are no longer supply companies with their own power generation and predictable consumption. New forms of renewable power generation, such as solar and wind, mean that power generation is decentralized.

We operate in a risk averse industry, which is understandable because when it comes to power there is a lot at stake. Utilities take a long-term view because when they build a substation it will last 50 years. The market size is about 500,000 substations and 29 million secondary distribution substations2 (Newton-Evans, 2016). This means around 50 million protective relays shared among 7,600 distribution system operators in over 175 countries3 (Kufeoglu-Pollitt-Anaya, 2018), to be tested every 5 years and replaced every 15 years. There is no utility in the world that is shrinking its network and that’s why automation to reduce maintenance and the number of devices in a substation becomes key for customers.

Automatic regulation with compensation factors and safety

The level of complexity in a modern substation would be impossible to handle manually because distributed or decentralized power generation requires constant automatic regulation with compensation factors, like load-shedding and load-sharing architectures.

The first step of an optimization process is the awareness of present status, in terms of total power consumption of each load group and costs for loads categories. Automatic reconfiguring regulates for different power flows at different times of day, identifying when you have a fault and locating where it is, and where the power is coming from depending on if it is day or night.

When it comes to safety, our R&D teams continue working on the most complex algorithms to prevent wildfires, bushfires, earth faults and failed electrical conductors in the desert where substations are operating under the harshest conditions.

Virtualizing the networks

To solve existing challenges, and anticipate upcoming ones, the large majority of distribution utilities are investigating new digital and virtualized protection and control architectures under the Utility 2.0 concept. Digitalization will support decentralized power generation with constant automatic regulation and compensation factors, reducing complexity, deployment time, maintenance costs and enabling upgrades and cybersecurity updates at any time without power interruptions. As we add more complexity to substations, the network will become self-diagnosing and self-maintaining, and Artificial Intelligence comes into its own to optimize this complex power infrastructure.

Let’s take an example everyone can relate to. Previously, we had everyday objects which carried out specific functions, such as a note pad, calculator, telephone or a clock. Now, we have one device which serves all these functions – a smart phone. A similar transformation is also taking place in power distribution.

In a standard substation, you must configure each relay to ensure it behaves in the way you expect, to prevent damages to the power infrastructure, protect lives and avoid blackouts or unwanted trips. By virtualizing the network, you can replace each of the boxes which serve a specific function with an application software, or upgrade based on new network requirements or conditions. Just as smart phones replaced many analogue everyday items, the ultimate target is to virtualize the different applications and start collecting the network operations, configurations, faults and trips in order to enable machine learning capabilities.

In the same way as when you add artificial intelligence to your home, you don’t want to see the complexity. The utilities and industries want to have a synthesized overview of their assets’ conditions and productivity, while receiving optimization suggestions.

Innovation in centralized protection

Where components like circuit breakers can be considered the limbs of the system, control and protection products are the brains. The applications and protection functions embedded in our protection relays are the benchmark for the market, ensuring that any earth fault, unwanted operations, or natural event which has the potential to disrupt power supply are protected against, ensuring the highest degree of reliability.

ABB was the first manufacturer to develop a real centralized protection solution for medium-voltage substations with its SSC600. This technology provides smart substation control and protection for electrical systems. Collecting massive volumes of data from the network, in the near future, SSC600 will support centralized decision-making with rapid communication at the speed of a millisecond. The solution was developed with support from Intel Internet of Things (IoT) organization, which is co-promoting the solution in the market.

Partnering with utilities for pilots

Since launching SSC600 in 2018, we have been investing significantly in pilot schemes in 20 countries around the world. For example, Caruna, the largest distribution system operator in Finland, was looking for a flexible and future-proof solution for their network and chose to pilot SSC600 – you can watch the video here.

We continue to collect feedback from the pilot utility companies to ensure we are developing the smartest network controllers possible. It is this partnership approach to our utility customers that will allow us to develop next level solution architecture to meet the demands of our rapidly evolving grid, now and in the future.

The digitalization of protection and control layers enables the next revolution of AI-operated and optimized networks, transitioning from traditional boxes to apps, with the same simplicity as adopting a mobile smartphone.

1: International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report, Nov 2019

2: Newton-Evans “Worldwide Study of the Protective Relay Marketplace in Electric Utilities: 2016–2018

3: Kufeoglu, S., Pollitt, M., & Anaya, K. (2018). Electric Power Distribution in the World: Today and Tomorrow

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About the author

Marco Nunes

Marco Nunes works as Global Product Marketing Manager for ABB Distribution Solutions – Distribution Automation product group. He has a BSc in Electrical Engineering/Power Systems from the HES-SO University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland, a Swiss Federal Diploma of Commerce and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Business Management from the University of Cumbria in UK. He has held Marketing & Sales and Product Marketing positions for ABB Switzerland before joining the Global Product Group organization in 2017. His primary areas of interest are innovations in Medium-voltage switchgear technology, next generation substation automation systems, and how to match customer needs beyond their expectations.
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