Digitising low voltage substations - challenges and opportunities

Industrial computing company Advantech gives its view on the need to digitise European low voltage substations.

In three years’ time, European Union member states will need to draw 20% of their energy needs from renewable resources.

Whether the energy comes from a residential rooftop, an off-shore wind farm in a neighbouring country or an electric vehicle battery, European energy companies will need visibility and control over these multi-directional exchanges.

A second prong of the European Commission’s binding package of legislations for 2020 is mandated smart meter rollouts to help cut energy consumption by 20%.

European distribution system operators (DSOs) will soon be using smart meters at scale as grid sensors to help monitor energy usages behind the meter.

Monitoring and visibility are therefore essential to manage a post-2020 energy network but do DSOs have sufficient ‘eyes’ on the network?

Industrial computing company Advantech’s Tony Milne believes the sector has done a good job of substation automation at the high voltage level but low-voltage (LV) substations are another matter.

In France, where Milne works as business development manager, most of the country’s 2,000 HV substations are fully automated but the country has around 700,000 LV substations.

And when France eventually brings its Linky smart meters online, all data will be concentrated at the substation level before feeding back to the DSO.

“So now France has the problem that all the local substations - from mid-voltage (MV) at a minimum - have to be able to collect all this data from Linky and then send it on to a central location,” says Milne.

“Smart meters are the initial driver to automate everything that is happening at the smart substations. And if the mid- and low-voltage substations are smart enough to collect all this data, then they're smart enough to communicate with the control systems and centres.”

Smart LV substations - cost of digitisation

But Milne points out that trying to equip each substation with some sort of intelligent device is primarily a financial problem rather than a technical one.

Milne questions how DSOs can automate the LV network cost effectively to meet EU regulatory requirements such as the need to support electric vehicle charging.

“DSOs have known for years that they could automate more but the cost of automating a pole outside a customer’s house with today's technology could be €5,000-10,000,” he says.

And with some poles only producing €1000 in revenue, the automation is ten times more than its value.

But the driver for DSOs to get closer to the end-user and prosumer is also financial.

Milne says: “Although DSOs are worrying about what to do about the low-voltage stuff, they also want to automate because that's where they get the money - the bit connected to the customer’s house that tells them how much they're earning.”

“That's the one bit that they know if they do automation, they will get some kind of return.”

At the mid to low-voltage level in France, Milne reports, DSOs are trying to introduce the same concept of automating high voltage substations where you have machines making decisions automatically alongside people interacting with and spotting issues on the network.

Milne also acknowledges that low voltage substations also need a 360° view of security “because electricity could come from anywhere”. 

The emergence of biofuel, biomass, wind and solar as sources of energy generation is forcing grid companies to manage them. Whereas in the past, all safety systems were designed around a power system upstream at one end and a consumer at the other. 

Milne says: “All these problems emerging were never dealt with before because they weren’t needed. Now they are all suddenly arriving at the same time.

“Companies working on the grid have many different types of issues to deal with - safety, efficiency and cost and finding the right technology to connect all of these things together.”

Industrial Internet of Things - solutions for LV substations

Industrial Internet of Things technology and control systems do offer solutions to improving monitoring and visibility at substation level.

Advantech, which supplies equipment to suppliers of large HV substations, says the LV segment has much to learn from experiences of information technology and operational technology integration.

Milne concludes: “The internet business model, where a consumer decides the requirements, places the order, pays, usually in advance of delivery; and where the supplier automatically receives the order and ships the product has a lot to offer the energy supply business. 

“The energy is already supplied in a continuous stream, and today’s bottleneck will become tomorrow’s smart substations.”

IT/OT convergence - energy webinar

Tony Milne from Advantech will talk more about what the LV network can learn from substation automation of the HV network in an Engerati co-hosted energy webinar.

Register for the live event 'Solutions for bridging IT/OT convergence in intelligent grid' or watch on demand. 

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