Four Trends Fueling Protection Testing Complexity
Protection systems are undergoing significant transformations. Utility and industrial companies are modernizing with intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) that offer more functions than ever. Substation Protection and Control (P&C) systems based on the IEC 61850 standard and energy sources from inverter-based renewables are coming online every day. Investments in digital protection systems are producing tangible benefits around the world, but sophisticated cyberattacks, novel technologies and regulatory compliance mandates hinder the day-to-day activities of engineers and technicians.
Here are four trends that require new strategies, tools, and skills that utilities should keep top of mind.
1. The rise of renewables.
Wind and solar power are making impacts on the grid. New fault characteristics introduced by renewables are disrupting conventional protection system engineering and testing orthodoxy. Personnel must develop practical knowledge of new technology standards and interpret analytics effectively to adapt philosophies around new concepts and implement new approaches.
Engineering and testing teams can cut through complexities with protection asset and test management systems that emphasize consistency and sustain familiar work methodologies. Team members are enabled when settings data and other mission-critical details they need are available across facilities where renewables and substation automation systems are coming online.
2. Growing cybersecurity concerns.
Cyberattacks on the grid’s critical infrastructure are happening every day. It’s not uncommon anymore for a utility to fend off tens of thousands of attempts at malicious code incursions each month. The rate of these attacks is increasing as criminals become more sophisticated and deploy new methods of generating threats. Hackers are highly skilled and can learn and adapt to an organization’s defenses.
Cybersecurity is one of the highest priorities in all aspects of protection testing. Modern protective relays are computer devices – cyber assets – that need to be tested periodically, yet doing so raises the risk of malware being inadvertently introduced into substation networks. Security measures surrounding company-issued field computers – transient cyber assets – can prevent malicious code from being transferred into relays and other substation devices during tests, but they could also introduce restrictions on work and cause inefficiency.
Cybersecurity can be seamless and transparent to workers when the tools they use incorporate controls and protocols effectively. Digital infrastructures such as utility protection systems must be defended against coordinated cyberattacks and preventive measures must be in place against risks of subsequent cascading failures. Settings and configuration data associated with relays and other cyber devices can be secured during maintenance activities with hardened field computers that maintain the isolation of substation networks from internet traffic. Ongoing workforce training that reinforces new expectations on personnel puts utilities in the optimal position to defend the grid against malicious players, securely perform commissioning and maintenance testing, and maximize the return on digital investments.
3. Limited availability of adequate training.
A well-trained workforce is more crucial today than ever but approaches to training in the utility and industrial environment can be unsystematic and complex. Instruction on protection system theory, applications and testing concepts can be sourced from relay and test equipment manufacturers as much as from internal resources or industry short courses. Growing knowledge when time and budgets are tight can come down to learning what you can while you can, then figuring out the rest through trial and error.
For example, digital substations based on the IEC 61850 standard introduce concepts and situations that workers must translate in order to commission and maintain protection schemes over Ethernet topologies. They must discern network anomalies as attributable to power system conditions, corrupted data traffic, or even devices themselves. They also must stay abreast of advancements in substation automation and protection engineering technologies to handle impacts from inverter-based renewables, heightened cybersecurity and other modernization initiatives.
As the power industry brings on new workers, nothing less than strategic workforce training will be acceptable. Strategic training considers the expected learning outcomes upfront and puts managers in a better position to sufficiently and consistently upskill their workforce.
4. Compliance with regulatory standards.
NERC Protection and Control (PRC) standards concern the reliable performance of utility protection systems across the interconnected North American power grid. Compliance with these standards can be a headache for utilities due to the variety of relay records and data that can be found in different systems and formats.
Relay testing practices and relay maintenance itself can undermine reliability by causing misoperations. The most common issues are that either settings are misapplied to the relay device during maintenance, or the settings are improperly calculated from the outset. Under NERC PRC-004-6 Protection System Misoperation Identification and Correction, reporting entities have a 120-day time limit to identify and report to other affected protection system owners whether their protection system components caused a misoperation. Further, they must develop and implement a corrective action plan to prevent such equipment failures from ever repeating.
NERC standard PRC-027-1, which went into effect April 1, 2021, addresses protection system misoperations that could occur due to relay settings being incorrect, and relay operations becoming out of sequence due to changes in system fault levels over time. This standard requires reporting entities to substantiate formal settings development and revision processes, and to perform ongoing studies for maintaining and verifying system coordination. NERC is looking for consistency in the practices of protection engineers when calculating relay settings and wants to see that the computations performed during coordination studies use correct settings values. Additionally, utilities must produce evidence that proactive communication occurred with owners of electrically joined facilities concerning each instance of new or revised settings affecting system coordination.
The evolution of protection testing will be affected by these four trends significantly. Workers will face additional requirements and work steps when dealing with the impacts from trends on their organizations. It’s time for utilities to take action to reduce risk and make room for the future.
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