The Future of Substation Automation: The Digital Substation

The future of power system substations may be redefined by the application of
virtualization. At least that is what an increasing number of utilities are envisioning as they
explore the opportunity for increased virtualization in substation design. In this future, there
would be a significant reduction in the hardware used in substations. Instead, tasks will be
carried out on cloud servers, marking a noticeable shift from the current reliance on extensive
racks of hardware.

The appeal for utilities is the significant cost reduction for substation design and
engineering, reduced usage of copper wiring, and the ability to easily replicate substation designs
for future expansions.

“Consider that today’s substation can have 200 or more independent [hardware] boxes
each performing a dedicated task,” says Jeremy Anderson, Senior Vice President of Product
Development at NovaTech Automation, a leading U.S. provider of automation and engineering
solutions for power utilities headquartered in Quakertown, PA. “That’s a tremendous amount of
wire to pull, hardware to maintain, and it continues to become more and more congested. In a
virtual digital substation, two or three servers run everything.”

With this in mind, NovaTech has spent the past year creating a virtual version of its
Orion Substation Automation Platform to run on any server. The system is hosted on a host
machine known as a hypervisor and servers powered by Intel CPUs. The Orion is a
communication and automation processor that can connect to nearly any substation device in its
native protocol, perform advanced math and logic, and securely present the source or calculated
data to any number of clients in their own protocol.

Cost savings is a leading driver of utilities’ interest in virtualization. “It is a lot less
expensive to build multiple substations once a virtual design is established because you’re not
pulling tons of copper wire everywhere,” says Anderson. “When it is based on the ethernet, you
can build a substation that is somewhat cookie-cutter in design and easily replicatable. This
represents a significant cost saving in substation design and engineering.

The cost outlay for hardware is also reduced. “Consider that two or three servers that cost
$10,000 each can potentially replace up to 200 hardware devices that average $10,000 per
device. The savings are significant even if you factor in licensing fees for virtual machines,” says

According to Anderson, there is a coordinated push by some large investor owned
utilities in the United States and globally to move to the “digital substation.” Still, not all utilities
are ready to pull the plug on the traditional substation design quite yet.

“Most utilities aren’t moving in this direction at this point,” explains Anderson. “But they
are certainly investigating it thoroughly with the plan to move in this direction in the coming

For more information on Orion substation automation solutions can be found at the
NovaTech Automation website:

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