Study Highlights the Use of Wi-Fi in Substations

By Charles W. Newton, Newton-Evans Research Company, Inc.

Although wildly popular in coffee shops, businesses and residential homes, wireless data communications via 802.11 networks, or Wi-Fi as it is more commonly known, does not yet appear to be taking hold in electric utilities.

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A research study on the use of Wi-Fi wireless communications in electric power substations was undertaken during January to May 2006 by the Newton-Evans Research Company on behalf of CIGRE, or the International Council on Large Electric Systems-a permanent, non-governmental and non-profit international association based in France. The survey was sent to leading electric power utilities around the world. More than 80 utilities from 32 countries participated in the research program.

Findings indicate that only minimal use is being made of Wi-Fi technology in electric power utility communications. The reasons for not using Wi-Fi wireless communications on a broader scale center around issues related to:

  • data security, and
  • lack of familiarity with evolving data encryption standards being developed for use by electric utilities.

Survey Says

The survey was designed and conducted (with related field work and report preparation) by Newton-Evans Research on a “pro-bono publico” basis for CIGRE. The survey was sent to approximately 400 electric power utilities serving at least 50,000 customers, and having at least 20 electric power distribution and/or transmission substations. By May 2006, more than 80 surveys had been received from 32 countries, and were validated and tabulated for inclusion in the final report, which was a section of the draft B5 WG22 tutorial presented to CIGRE B5 conference sessions.

Across the world, there was little difference in current practices regarding the use of Wi-Fi wireless technology adoption and use. That is to say, utility officials are not using Wi-Fi at the present time for sensitive applications, such as protection and automation activities in electric power substations.

Other findings include:

“- Use of Wireless LAN Based on IEEE 802.11: There were a few users of existing IEEE 802.11 protocols, but only three utilities indicated any plans to use IEEE 802.11i, the newest and most secure of the wireless-related encryption techniques. The majority (90 percent) of utilities indicated no plans to use wireless LANs in the substation. Most were already using some form of “wired” approach (fiber, copper, cable).

“- Security Issues having an Effect on Communications in Substations: Thirty-eight percent of the utilities indicated that security issues did have an effect on their decision not to use wireless communications in the substation, based on the company’s security policy. Twenty-two percent stated that published articles discussing the risks of wireless use affected their decisions, and 10 percent said their own, or other utility experiences, justified their position not to use wireless communications in the substation. Twenty percent said security did not have an effect on their decision not to use wireless approaches. For these, most had just upgraded some type of wire line approach to substation communications. (See Figure 1 and Figure 2.)

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“- Requirement for Local Access to Substation IEDs without Entry into the Substation: Forty-four percent of the respondents stated that they did not need local access to substation devices without entering the substation. One third stated that they could benefit from this capability, but had no plans to implement a solution. However, just about one in five officials stated that they could benefit from local access to substation IEDs without having to enter the substation and would implement a solution by the end of next year. (See Figure 3, next page.)

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“- Wireless Use for Mission Critical Tasks: Most utility officials (more than 90 percent) are quite concerned about security risks related to using wireless communications for (a) setting of protection relays; (b) breaker control and (c) recloser control. However, less than one half were concerned with security issues when it involved remote metering data capture using wireless communications.

Security Risk Assessment and Other Applications

One of the surprising responses received during the survey was the answer to the question: “Has a security risk assessment been performed at your utility that includes possible use of wireless communications for protection and automation?”

Sixty-one percent said they had “no plans for such a security risk assessment.” In fact, the majority of utilities around the world had not performed a security risk assessment (as of mid-year 2006). Given the worldwide emphasis on cyber security by each national government, this was surprisingly high. And, those 61 percent have no plan to use Wi-Fi for protection and automation under any circumstances; therefore, they don’t need to perform a risk assessment (according to that line of thinking).

However, there is some “good news”: One-quarter of those surveyed had performed a risk assessment and 16 percent had plans to perform a security risk assessment. The results of the security risk assessment indicated that more than half of those utilities were reported to have a high security risk for one or more of their assets or activities. (See Figure 4 and Figure 5.)

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The majority of international utilities were already using wireless technologies for voice applications, and for paging. Plans were mentioned by several for new applications of wireless technologies for asset management and inventory control applications. The majority were not planning to use any wireless communications for operational applications such as energy management or distribution SCADA, power generation control or substation control.

The most important use of wireless technologies for operations was centered on maintenance crew dispatch services. Fifty-eight percent of respondents plan to use Wi-Fi in this area while 42 percent do not, making management of crew dispatch the “natural market entry point.” As this application of WLAN becomes more widely implemented, the use of Wi-Fi may well become more attractive to other operational applications.

In April 2007 CIGRE published a technical brochure titled “Wi-Fi Protected Access for Protection and Automation” based in large part on the findings from the Newton-Evans Research survey. The CIGRE 53-page brochure includes a large amount of information produced from the findings of the Newton-Evans study. The full report is available from CIGRE.

Charles (Chuck) W. Newton is president of Newton-Evans Research Company. A graduate of Fordham University (BA, Economics) and Loyola College (MBA, Marketing), Chuck has been a 35-year, career-long researcher of information technology products, markets and trends. Since 1983, that research commitment and organizational work effort has been focused on the world’s electric utilities and energy pipelines. During the 1992-2005 periods, Chuck worked in more than 35 countries meeting with leading utilities, systems integrators, management consultants, and energy IT suppliers to conduct market and product research, as well as to provide briefings and training on infrastructure, automation and information technology issues.

More information on this and other Newton-Evans research can be obtained by contacting Chuck Newton at

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