Communication Protocol Gains Worldwide Acceptance

Communication Protocol Gains Worldwide Acceptance

North American utilities and IED

manufacturers join forces to develop

a “next generation” common protocol.

By Mark Adamiak

The worldwide acceptance of a “next generation” universal communications standard is an initiative that is coming none too soon for many utilities, as economic, political and technological forces converge to place increasing pressure on the industry to provide more open, cost-effective solutions. In order to achieve those productivity gains, it has been imperative to find a means to agree upon open communication standards.

Utilities have long realized that the benefits of having a universal communications protocol for the industry are considerable. With an open systems solution, the industry could potentially save millions of dollars in development costs, protocol conversions, inter-device control wiring and other areas. Utilities can improve operating and business decisions based on real-time availability of data, combine different local and wide area media, as well as reduce implementation time and cost through using standardized devices.

The road to establishing a universal standard has been a long and difficult one. Although it has been slow, the industry is beginning to see some progress and has taken significant strides in moving forward in this area. With such tangible gains, some significant technology developments that promise to revolutionize the substation environment as it is now known are being witnessed.

Although there has been speculation for some time as to which protocol will achieve the widest acceptance, more and more utilities are looking to the latest UCA (Utility Communications Architecture) Version from EPRI (formerly Electrical Power Research Institute). UCA Version 2 was born of the joint efforts of a group of selected North American utilities and intelligent electronic device (IED) manufacturers coordinated by EPRI. Their goal was to achieve a “next generation” common protocol for high-speed peer-to-peer communications between devices in the substation as well as back to the utility enterprise. Their efforts, in conjunction with the applicable standards-related groups in the IEEE and IEC communities, have gone a long way towards establishing acceptable open systems communication protocols for hardware and software.

EPRI`s UCA Version 1 was introduced in 1990. Its purpose was to establish a suite of existing protocols that would provide a flexible foundation for open communications in today`s utility environment, while anticipating the communications demands for the foreseeable future. UCA Version 2, introduced in 1997, expands on the original version to include Internet compatibility and a common interface standard for electric, gas and water utility systems. As technology evolves, and cooperation between utilities, associations, users and vendors becomes more widespread, UCA Version 2 is clearly being considered by many to be one of the first universally recognized protocol suites that can provide an integrated, open system for real-time information exchange among all major utility data communications systems.

To date more than 34 utilities worldwide, including those in countries such as Holland, Italy, Germany, Mexico, the United States, Canada, the Philippines and South Africa, have either specified or expressed a preference for UCA as the primary standard in their substation design. Utility groups in the UK are currently reviewing UCA.

With the worldwide adoption of UCA, and the development of protection and control technology that offers the inherent ability to communicate peer-to-peer as well as to a station`s host computer, the communications tools are now established to enable utilities to effectively compete in a deregulated environment.

At the same time, as more countries move towards the designation of a universally recognized standard, vendors are concentrating more of their efforts on developing UCA-compliant products. In order to see the significance of this progress however, it is important to understand the forces that have led us to this point–or to be more precise, how deregulation has driven a need for change on many fronts.

The Changing Landscape

of Deregulation

In the wake of deregulation, unbundling of services and increasing costs, the key for the industry now lies in realizing real cost reduction. Although cost control has always been an issue for the industry, opening up the market to competition has placed added pressure on utilities to reduce costs and inject efficiencies into the system.

From a communications standpoint, deregulation has broken utilities into communication islands of users, each with their own functions to perform. Independent metering groups could find themselves at odds with independent system operators, billing agents and other users. With this complex network of data users, the utility industry–and its suppliers–were faced with the need to create a network that would allow for the integration, consolidation and dissemination of information both inter and intra utility.

From a financial standpoint, deregulation has brought with it a need for the sharing of accounting data among utilities, independent system operators, metering firms, billing firms and independent power producers. Inter-utility billing must be correct and standardized. Standard accounting and record keeping topics to track include revenues, costs, liabilities and assets.

Deregulation has also led to a number of mergers and consolidations within the industry. This in turn requires utilities to establish intra-company communication and the integration of data from companies` control centers, power plants and substations. All of this becomes a difficult and extremely costly feat if the industry continues to work with different data models and communication protocols.

Adapting to a New Mindset

Utilities are now recognizing that their mindset must move beyond the confines of protecting individual interests to finding out how to network these islands to facilitate communication, increase competitiveness and reduce costs. This of course can only be achieved through effective use of technology–and technology can only be effective in the industry through standardization. Hence the relentless drive for vendors and suppliers to adopt a universal standard for data models and communication protocols.

Financial analyses of UCA Version 2-based substation automation installations indicate the ability to deliver substantial cost and productivity savings to utilities in a number of major automation functions. These include substation voltage regulator control, metering and transformer monitoring, feeder and voltage monitoring, sectionalizer switching, capacitor bank switching, outage detection and metering and voltage monitoring.

The Vendors` Role

As EPRI`s work in establishing an acceptable worldwide standard is paving the way for utilities around the world to move forward, it has also provided a clear direction for suppliers in developing products for the substation environment.

As the protocol issues become resolved, and more countries come on board in designating and accepting a recognized standard, vendors are now being equally proactive in bringing more “universal” products to market.

Although vendors have been more reticent to open the doors to competition, at the same time they have learned that they must take a cooperative role with utilities, standards organizations, end users and other vendors to introduce products to market that take advantage of the new protocols.

This cooperative approach was certainly not the case as recently as a decade or so ago when substations were full of discrete devices, all wired and mounted separately. Some of these were passive–and most were using analog technology. Needless to say, vendors had a vested interest in protecting “their own” and ensuring that their proprietary solutions would spawn additional revenues as utilities expanded.

The result of all this was a host of expensive devices, each requiring real estate: current and voltage sensing, transducers, panel meters, RTUs, fault locators, fault recorders, control relays, timers, switches, logic devices, protection relays and communication interfaces.

Any expansion meant that utilities would have to implement individual communications interfaces or gateways to connect any new equipment to an existing data network–a costly and inefficient and time consuming undertaking. The sensible approach was to try to minimize the number of suppliers in order to simplify expansion efforts, although this would not always mean getting the most advantageous products for their technology dollars.

One only has to look at the world of PC technology to see the advantages of open communications. In that world, systems can function in virtually any environment and communicate with any other device on a network regardless of platforms or operating systems–at a significantly lower cost than proprietary systems.

To transfer this type of integration into the substation can obviously deliver substantial productivity gains. In theory, users could replace the above mentioned discrete devices with intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) that could communicate, perform programmable logic and have multiple I/O. All at a fraction of the usual long-term costs.

Developers and manufacturers have long understood that the benefits inherent in PC technology, such as common hardware and software platform, a modular and upgradable architecture and a common human machine interface, could as easily and effectively be applied to substation systems. With the progress made in providing that crucial missing link–the standard communications protocol–we can now move forward with “next generation” communications. Early universal adoption of this protocol can hopefully avoid the “Tower of Babel” that was created with the plethora of first generation IED communication protocols.

Click here to enlarge image

The next generation substation architecture allows a migration from present RTU/SCADA technology to the “next generation” SCADA, while providing the ability to integrate with legacy devices.

Mark Adamiak is GE Power Management`s System Integration manager. The system integration group is responsible for developing and implementing utility integration solutions around the world.

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