Simplifying Distribution Automation in Substations and Pole-Tops

Simplifying Distribution Automation in Substations and Pole-Tops

Utility substation automation schemes are typically complex, involving a variety of intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), microprocessor-based relays, meters and monitoring devices.  The information collected is then sent to communication processors or RTUs, before being passed on to proprietary HMI interfaces, SCADA Master Stations, Energy Management Systems (EMS) and/or enterprise networks.

Given that utilities may have hundreds of substations and even more pole-tops to monitor and control remotely, the complexity of distribution automation has traditionally been staggering.  Fortunately, over the past two decades, substation automation has evolved and changed. “In the past, the design of the substation was a patchwork of many different devices,” says Russ Fanning, a P.E. with over a decade experience in the automation group of a large Wisconsin utility.  “Once you finally got the patchwork figured out, you could replicate that pattern but when you went to the next substation and you wanted to bring in something new, you were starting from scratch again and trying to patch that new piece in.”

Today, Fanning says the focus is on stripping out as much of the complexity associated with substation automation as possible.  

Technological advances over the past several years have reduced the need for the same amount of hardware in favor of “all-in-one” communication and automation processor units that can interpret and distribute information in many protocols while performing sophisticated logic functions and alarm annunciation without the need for PLCs and racks of RTUs.  These all-in-one devices even eliminate the need for security-risk PCs and proprietary HMI interfaces.  

Interpreting Communications and Protocols – Fanning was first introduced to NovaTech – the company he now works for – in 2002.  NovaTech has more than 30 years as a supplier of automation and engineering solutions for electric utilities and process manufacturing industries.  The company’s flagship product is the Orion Substation Automation Platform, which performs an expanding array of automation and security applications in electric utility substations with minimal setup and maintenance.  Over the years the utility has installed more than 500 Orion units to improve the operations of both old and new substations to date.

According to Fanning, the distribution automation system he installed at the time specifically involved 30 Orion units using NovaTech’s unique Distribution Automation algorithm designed to automate the switching of substation breakers and pole-top devices to restore power and/or to avoid power outages and equipment damage.  

“In a typical substation set-up at the time, there was often different software in each device and I would have to manipulate the data just to be able to share it,” says Fanning.  “For one system I worked on, I needed a proprietary protocol and software just to communicate to the device.”

In most modern substations, microprocessor-based relays involve a proprietary protocol, so the communications processors must be able to retrieve real-time fault event data and records by speaking to the relays in their native protocol.

 “The Orion product is an essential hub for all this data collection, both in collecting and, perhaps, interpreting or actually taking action.  The system could send that off to the control center to change setting, trip a breaker or switch a feeder,” says Fanning.

Today, open-source web-based SCADA and HMI solutions eliminate the need for a substation PC and its inherent software and cybersecurity concerns, at a fraction of the cost.  

If there is a physical manifestation of the reduction in complexity, Fanning points to the substation.  In many substations he worked in there would be racks or cabinets of devices with hundreds of wires and blinking lights.  

“Today, substation layout is much cleaner. You can probably eliminate entire writing racks and cabinets – or at least make it much smaller – depending on how you are handling your I/Os to the IEDs,” says Fanning.

For more information on NovaTech, visit their website at:

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