Substation automation, digital twins & IoT device management

The Device Chronicle interviews Sander Jansen, about substation automation, IoT device management and Alliander’s mission critical role in keeping consumers connected to the energy grid. 

Alliander develops and operates energy networks with areas of expertise in properly distributing energy across all the grids under its management, providing digital energy infrastructures, and solutions in energy metering and energy management. Under its management in the Netherlands is a 92,000km electricity grid and a 20,000km gas network. Part of Alliander’s challenge as a company is to maintain great connections to the grid and to keep up with the fast growing demand so as not becoming a bottleneck in providing energy to consumers. Sander explains that as a distribution operator, Alliander operates nearly 250 substations with connections to approximately 3 million smart meter devices.

Systems operations and substation automation

Sander leads the system operations department at Alliander and tries to grapple with the increased congestion on the grid to find suitable connections for customers to the grid. Sander is a big fan of open source software development and has a strong grounding in data architecture. Sander is now the product owner of the virtual substations and focusses on substation automation. A substation automation system is defined as a collection of hardware and software components that are used to monitor and control an electrical system, both locally and remotely. And as the power grid is operated at the almost limit of its capabilities, complete control over all the settings and over all the devices and all control circuits is crucial. Sander says “We want to have more agility in the substation automation to respond faster to new developments or new features.”

Substation automation expert Sander Jansen from Alliander
Substation automation expert Sander Jansen from Alliander

Congestion problems in the transition to clean energy

The main problem is congestion where, for example, solar energy farms want to have connections to the grid. But the grid wasn’t designed originally to handle the increasing amount of solar energy. The solar energy farms are far from the urban areas so they have to wait a couple years before they can be upgraded to the power grid. Sander remarks: “This is not helping the sustainable energy transition and so we are looking at ways to connect the end customers where possible. For example, we have to manage the capacity of the solar energy farm owner to bring their energy to consumers. They will need to reduce supply for a short period of time if the grid capacity is not there. There are many possible solutions to solve this. For any solution, it’s very important that we have a clear sight of what’s going on inside the power grid and this is what is being worked on the system operations. Substation automation is a key part of enabling this.”

Role of IoT and data management

With IoT and data management, Sander and his team look to mimic the exact behavior of the physical asset. Sander says you can call it a digital twin setup that is designed to support “doing more based on data from electronics- and electrical calculations. “We have our own internal representation of the grid and based on this, we’re trying to do a state estimation, and important calculations that are needed to calculate the amount of capacity you still have left for consumers to use.” 

IoT device management plays a key role in this physical-digital ecosystem. Sander describes a large IoT-enabled fleet: “There are tonnes of devices in many locations and the major device type is the smart meter.  There are roughly 2 million meters with connections to the grid. We also offer municipalities switched connections to the grid and the municipalities can say when they want to switch owners of a certain set street lights and the street lights need to be managed. There is also distribution automation for the medium voltage devices, and substation automation that needs to be managed. There are IoT devices in these substations. 

Operational and secure

Sander says keeping devices operational and secure is one of top priorities and challenges, especially with substation automation. Sander remarks that there are standard communication protocols for intelligent electronic devices in electrical substations such as IEC 61850, but he believes that there is no fully standardised way to check IED configurations and do IED management . This is currently highly vendor specific This Sander says “makes it harder to get an overview of what’s in the field, and the configuration statuses of the devices.” For the configuration of the IED itself, Sander and his team are working on the CoMPAS project. The aim of this project is to automate and manage the IED functional configurations.

OTA software updates and cybersecurity

OTA software updates are important for the smart meters. Sander remarks “We have a smart meter head and that helps us to do those things. And then the nice thing about it, the part of the head end is open source, it’s called the GXF Project.”  If you look at the substations and distribution automation more generally, there is a balance to be struck between risk with taking an update and and the reliability of the device running because they’re In a highly critical industry sector. “Obviously if we fail to deliver a distribution service, we get complaints from society. And therefore it is always a balance between reliability and the risk you take with an update but I think in general sense, especially if you look from the security perspective and maybe also from a maintenance perspective, then it is a resounding “yes” for OTA software updates. Going forward, there will be a need to perform more updates more often.” In cybersecurity, OTA updates depend on your security strategy. Sander concludes “We (Alliander) have multiple strategies to protect our assets. We want to keep the society going and therefore we need the energy system going and therefore we need to get the monitoring system for the devices that are connected to the power grid.”

We wish Sander and his colleagues well as they continue on their journey to meet energy connection requirements. 


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