Energy & Power Systems

Digital Substations: Recent Hurricanes Highlight the Need for Grid Hardening

by Rajalingam Chinnasamy 28 Sep 2017
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By Rajalingam Chinnasamy

Utility substations form an integral part of the entire grid network. They will play a vital role in the smart grids of tomorrow. Motivated by long term cost savings, the ability to self-diagnose, and the need to accommodate distributed energy resources (DERs), the industry is witnessing a positive trend towards adopting digital substations.

A digital substation is based on an architecture where data is collected by sensors from the primary equipment within the substation and is communicated in real time via a process bus. In short, the data is processed where it is measured and data is exchanged through Ethernet bus instead of copper cables.

Traditional substations had expensive copper cables for connecting primary equipment including circuit breakers, conventional current and voltage transformers, and protection relays. Next generation substations will replace traditional copper cables to connect the edge equipment with fibre optic cables, resulting in significant cost and time savings.

With the implementation of digital substations, the total ownership cost decreases, and substations are made more compact. Utilities benefit by getting information from the edge and are able to understand how these disparate assets are impacting the entire system and not just the substation.


The need for self-diagnostic capabilities is increasingly becoming a norm in the industry. Irrespective of the utility size, substation modernization is penetrating steadily across the U.S. Even the smallest municipalities like the City of Statesville, which manages just 10 substations and provides power to less than 25,000 people, are focussed on improving the reliability and availability of their substation by adopting smart solutions.

Grid Hardening

The talk of grid hardening and resiliency has been strengthened further following the recent Hurricanes in the U.S. Though the industry believes it cannot be immune to these natural disasters, the recovery rate will increase if grid modernization programs are implemented. For instance recovery rate of Florida Power and Light (FPL) post Hurricane Irma increased by 5% per day compared to earlier occurrences. Such quick recovery is attributed to grid hardening programs including installation of fibre optic cables, flood monitoring equipment, and other automation systems that allowed the utilities to de-energize during hurricanes resulting in protection of their assets from permanent damage.

DER and Bi-Directional Flow

DERs have increasingly become mainstream sources for power generation in the U.S. Frost & Sullivan’s 2016 Global Distributed Energy Outlook projects that the North American DER market accounts for 20.2% of the global cumulative installations. With advancements in storage technology, rooftop solar, small scale wind and building energy management systems, automation solutions are required to control bidirectional power flow and grid parity.

Contrary to popular belief, Frost & Sullivan’s research shows utilities are more forthcoming to embrace digital technologies for their assets. Though the investments in digital solutions are low in the short term, utilities understand the need to stay relevant in the next ten years.

With over 50-60% of the substations in North American yet to be automated, opportunity for digital substation is huge.

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