Looking at IEC 61850, Part 1: The Relay Technician
Adopting the IEC 61850 standard changes the professional journey of relay technicians. Digital substations require them to develop a keen understanding of IED (Intelligent Electronic Device) communications over Ethernet and grow expertise in virtual protection and control environments. The knowledge and skills they develop along the way become invaluable as the power industry modernizes and expands going forward.
For some perspective on this, I reached out to my friend and longtime colleague, Mr. Blake Harris, whose excerpted remarks from our conversation on this subject are italicized. Blake has 25 years of experience in substation maintenance and protective relay testing and has taught courses on these subjects at a local community college for several years. In his role at Doble, he works with utility and industrial relay testing and engineering professionals daily, whether providing support and consulting remotely from his office here in Tulsa or during on-site visits across the country.
Briefly, the IEC 61850 standard defines protocols that modern relays and other IEDs (Intelligent Electronic Devices) can share for uniform communications over Ethernet. With proper programming, IEC 61850-compliant substation devices exchange immense amounts of data that are consistent in format regardless of devices on the network being from different manufacturers. Automation schemes with tremendous response speeds and status information updated microsecond-by-microsecond can be engineered, and being networked, IEC 61850 implementations can be monitored and managed remotely.
On implementing IEC 61850 –
Utility-scale wind and solar facilities coming online at unprecedented levels and electricity demand continually increasing year-over-year offer reasons for adopting IEC 61850 in substation networks. After all, it’s not like the costs of rolling trucks and performing maintenance on copper-wired substations are coming down. But in North America, companies that have implemented IEC 61850 are far fewer than those that have not. Why?
“In my experience it’s the smaller organizations that are kind of ‘staying away’ – they’re letting the larger utilities and engineering firms do all the heavy lifting, get everything vetted, and then when technology comes closer to plug-n-play with established industry practices, they might migrate. It will take some time to establish what the industry will adopt as required testing criteria.”
“People are scared to let it do its thing so they’re putting it in as SV or GOOSE-only or as a redundancy to a copper system. They don’t ‘trust’ it yet…there are many new pieces of the puzzle that can go wrong. It’s trusting that the engineering is solid and we’ve done our job testing it.”
On preparing the workforce –
Relay technicians take years to reach a qualified level of knowledge and ability. There is plenty of math and protection theory to comprehend and then there are the relays themselves and sets of test software and equipment. How does IEC 61850 impact their jobs?
“Take an average technician, one who can walk in and figure out everything in a substation. Maybe he or she can’t fix every problem, but at least can figure out where the problems are and do educated things to address them. A technician of this caliber needs a tremendous amount of training and exposure – dedicated hands-on time – on top of an average day’s job. Learning something new is a really tall order especially if they’re good at what they do and they’re needed at their company.”
On working with the technology –
What does testing and troubleshooting look like in protection and control environments that are based on the IEC 61850 standard and what advice can you offer?
“The average technician isn’t going to know about a ‘superspecial’ command on the relay to see if the communications are synchronized through IRIG-B or through the satellite and if everything’s happy. Another type of technician will have to be cultivated, somebody that learns the communications and substation level items as well as protection. He or she will need to be sitting closer to the engineer than before. There will be a whole process, a new line of communication between the engineer and the end technician that isn’t there now. It’s one thing to look at a set of prints and respond to incorrect logic or wiring, but with IEC 61850, depending upon what point an error occurs, there’s a good chance the technician is not going to feel comfortable addressing it.”
“I have seen relays of the same model, one using SV and the other using analogs, both using the same settings, operate at significantly different points. Techs may not be in a position to model relays side by side and see what they can figure out. If it’s the SV relay that’s operating ‘incorrectly,’ It will be a new troubleshooting technique that will have to be employed. We have a lot of digital circuitry converting volts, amps, and angles to the process bus that can be difficult to understand as an ‘analog tech.’ We’re changing the type and number of failure points, whereas with analog, there are established methods to identify the issues. To companies considering IEC-61850, training is great but dedicated hands-on time will be the best method to learn. Having the tech be involved with the engineering process…you will thank yourselves in the future.”
On the outlook –
Investments and regulations are presently driving decarbonization of electricity while demand for it has never been higher and will only increase. Power networks will have to be more available, reliable, and resilient from now on. Many companies are implementing IEC 61850 to respond to these challenges, but many more are not, or at least not yet, and some are not planning to at all.
Time will tell the level of adoption IEC 61850 reaches here in the U.S. The standard makes game-changing protection and control automation solutions possible but technical, financial, and regulatory concerns persist. In any event, the role of the relay technician is key to modernization initiatives and is consequential to the energy transition that is already underway.
It is the relay technician who is on the front-line of protection system performance, the one who finds points of failure and addresses them. In IEC 61850 implementations, the relay technician will be the one to discern if issues are physical or virtual and will be the person to validate the engineering and technologies in play.
My conversation with Blake added detail to the picture I had in my mind when thinking about IEC 61850 and imagining the view from the relay technician’s perspective. The insights he had to offer gave me a real-world glimpse that improved my understanding of this subject area. Thank you, Blake!
Don’t miss Part 2 of this 5-part series in The Relay newsletter where we look at IEC 61850 from the perspective of the protection engineer.
- Originally published in the The Relay™ Newsletter. Subscribe on LinkedIn.
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