The Digital Future of the Substation
For more than 100 years, substations have been a key part of the electric system and have operated virtually the same way. They use thousands of wires and relays to reduce the voltage coming from transmission lines so that electricity is compatible with wiring in homes and businesses.
But substations have large footprints. System upgrades can require long, costly outages and the design makes it difficult to assess cyberthreats and weaknesses.
Southern California Edison thinks, in this digital age, there must be a better way to operate substations. In 10 years, SCE wants to have technology that will use machine virtualization that simulates the actual field conditions so computer software and fiber-optic cable can replace relays and copper wires. Today, these technologies are just beginning to be explored.
“We are living through one of the biggest technology transformations in history, which hasn’t yet been reflected in the bulk power system,” said Kevin Payne, president and CEO of SCE. “At Edison, we are committed to working with our vendors, research partners and other utilities to take advantage of the digital age to become more resilient, agile and secure.”
At SCE’s Grid Technology Learning Center in Westminster, two traditionally separate areas of focus, information technology and operational technology, are being looked at in combination.
At Edison, we are committed to working with our vendors, research partners and other utilities to take advantage of the digital age to become more resilient, agile and secure.”SCE CEO Kevin Payne
Multiple projects are underway to understand how to coordinate digitization, machine learning and artificial intelligence. One SCE project is funded by California’s EPIC program, which invests in scientific and technological research to accelerate the transformation of the electricity sector. SCE’s team is examining how to replace substation relays — the hardware that trips circuit breakers — with virtual relays. Other work is looking at using fiber optics to replace analog data.
Today, the U.S. Department of Energy recognized SCE’s work in this space by awarding the company the first Electricity Industry Technology and Practices Innovation Challenge Tier One gold prize. The challenge grant was designed to generate ideas to make the nation’s electric grid stronger and more resilient.
“Submissions for our inaugural challenge reflected ideas from the nation’s best and brightest in the electricity sector,” said Bruce J. Walker, assistant secretary in DOE’s Office of Electricity. “SCE proposed virtualizing components of electric grid substations and operating them using a human machine interface.”
He said ideas like this, and those from the other winners, could significantly improve today’s electric industry practices.
“It is very gratifying to get DOE recognition for this work that we feel so strongly about,” said Payne, upon learning of the award. “Kudos to our transformational thinkers who are working across the company to bring about this change.”
In addition to the DOE recognition, SCE received $100,000, which will be reinvested in further grid modernization efforts.