The trilemma: Three tips for effective substation operation

Britain’s energy infrastructure provides power to 26 million homes, as well as millions of businesses across the nation. Despite the impressive feats of the sector, it is facing a unique challenge. Here, Martyn Williams, managing director of industrial automation software expert, COPA-DATA UK, gives three tips for ensuring effective substation operations by blending new technology with existing infrastructure

The UK Government is facing a ‘trilemma’; a struggle to provide secure, affordable and clean energy, all while preventing blackouts. This is a unique situation where the technology available to the sector is much more advanced than the infrastructure the industry is built on. But what can engineers do to modernise the infrastructure and ensure reliability?

Keep it location-independent

Many of the 400,000 substations scattered around the UK were not designed for today’s advancing energy industry, especially with the push from fossil fuels to renewable sources. To ensure the infrastructure is fit for purpose, we need to bring these run-down facilities back up to speed.

Many substations are remote and unmanned. Despite this, some are yet to acquire a connected infrastructure, and instead rely on an energy control operator to manually visit the substation to monitor the condition and obtain the energy distribution data.

The disadvantage of this method is that data cannot be collected, monitored and analysed in real time. Essentially, this means that data collected is not up-to-date and the information gleaned from that data redundant. When the data is eventually analysed, it could be almost impossible for the operator to pinpoint the root cause of any problems.

A connected intelligent substation allows for a much more efficient asset that can be monitored and maintained in real-time. This also enables predictive analytics and maintenance, which greatly reduce the risk of downtime and vastly increase the lifetime value of the asset.

Intelligent software can even be integrated into existing equipment. For example, by using an industrial automation package like COPA-DATA’s zenon, the substation can become a part of an Internet of Things (IoT) led architecture. Substation data is stored in a centralised network, with real-time and historical insight, regardless of age or location.

Make use of data 

There’s no advantage in collecting data if you are failing to analyse the information and make informed decisions. The right intelligent automation software should analyse the data and combine real-time information with historical reports.

This generates a comprehensive overview of each substation’s performance, enabling cross-site benchmarking for energy distribution. What’s more, using intelligent automation software, the data can provide insights into the lifespan forecast of the substation’s machinery and deliver predictive analytics to inform preventative maintenance.

With such widespread geographical locations for substations, an obvious solution is to store this data in the cloud. COPA-DATA’s zenon can be used in combination with Microsoft Azure for fast and easy access to the control centre.

Intelligent automation software gives operators an overview of the complete network at all times, meaning that any unusual or unplanned activity can be detected instantly. This method ensures information isn’t confined to one server, but is instead accessible from any location. This allows for rapid updates and real-time alerts.

Encrypt your data

Storing data in the cloud heightens concerns for cyber security and energy companies must now consider the risk of cyber attack. Cyber Security standards such IEC62443 ensure that intelligent software providers help minimise these threats.

Continuous vigilance provides one level of security, but COPA-DATA’s zenon takes security further by using binary storage and an encrypted network protocol. Furthermore, the ability to separate key location-based data from process values allows users to maintain critical data onsite and benefit from cloud storage and analytics on the process data.

With these three tips to face the ‘trilemma’, energy distributors can ensure their network is more secure and affordable, while also being prepared to operate with renewable and diverse energy sources and generators. By overcoming these challenges, substation engineers, distribution and transmission systems operators can ensure the wheels of industry push forward into the future and the homes of millions stay lit.

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