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Jackson, MI 49201

Jun 30, 2024

Keeping power grids up and running requires protecting them against a variety of failures.

The IEC 61850 standard has been around since at least 1995. Its roots can actually be traced back to the 1980s, depending on your viewpoint. Either way, it is a standard with a lot of history behind it. But strangely, there are power substations around the world at which IEC 61850 still hasn't been implemented. There are others with only partial implementation.

To understand why, it may be necessary to know how we got to where we are today. Needless to say, both power protection and IEC 61850 have evolved over the last three decades. If you'd like to learn more about it and its history, we invite you to check out our webinar from 2023.

Improving Communication Capabilities

Keeping power grids up and running requires protecting them against a variety of failures. Since the beginning, power system protection has been dominated by electrical mechanical relays. Unfortunately, relays did not always communicate with each other and their respective control centers. In addition, their data collection capabilities were limited. The solution was the development of intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) capable of collecting a much larger library of digital data points.

In response to this development, a project to update power protection was launched in 1986. That project eventually morphed into a 1995 project combining the Comprehensive EPRI-Project UCA with IEC 60870 and culminating in the IEC 61850 standard we know today.

What we now have is an international standard that defines communication protocols within the substation. Different pieces of equipment can easily communicate regardless of manufacturer or vendor. This includes equipment designed for protection, control, and recording.

IEDs provide the bridge for communicating across all three levels of the IEC 61850 standard:  the process, bay, and station levels. Buses between process and bay levels, and then bay and station levels, are fiber optic buses capable of real time data transmission with little to no latency.

Automating Power Grids

Improving device communication within a substation seems simple enough. But what the early adopters of the IEC 61850 standard did not realize were the impacts of their work on future power protection. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s – before the explosion of the public internet – could they have imagined digital technologies that would automate power grids? Probably not.

With the rollout of the public internet came the ability to connect substations within digital networks. A variety of network technologies opened the door to larger datasets, better analysis, and even remote access. And yet, automation remains challenging when new electronic devices struggle to communicate.

Most of the communication issues are a thing of the past thanks to the IEC 61850 standard. These days, all the control, monitoring, and recording devices in a substation freely communicate through IEC 61850. The standard defines a common way to represent the devices and functions in a substation while communication protocols define how information is exchanged.

The end result is a new wave of automation that is making power protection and delivery safer, more reliable, and more flexible. So much so that it is a wonder IEC 61850 isn't fully implemented in every substation around the world. But that's a different topic for another post.

Here at Commonwealth are fully versed in the IEC 61850 standard and its application to the modern power substation. It is something we believe in strongly, and a standard that should be implemented wherever possible. IEC 61850 has eliminated communication and interoperability issues in power protection, opening the door to more reliable power facilitated by state-of-the-art automation. It is both the current state and future of power protection.

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