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The role of communications in the automation and remote control of distribution networks

Electric distribution companies have tens of thousands of transformation centers that perform the function of distributing electric power, taking meter readings from supply points, and that are responsible for maintaining and ensuring all the elements involved operate correctly. In order to fulfill this function, transformation centers use specific technologies that require automation and remote control.

The main problem of  transformation centers

The substantial number of transformation stations and smart meters that distribution companies use, and the possible remote locations of such transformation stations, means that the cost of maintaining and controlling power supply systems and reading electricity meters that don’t have communications equipment is very costly. Nowadays, more and more transformation centers are equipped with advanced communications systems.

Smart systems in distribution networks

Transformation centers use RTUs (Remote Terminal Units) and PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). These devices are designed to manage voltage transformers, medium and low voltage switchgear, and power supply equipment. Since RTU and PLC devices do not usually have built-in communications capabilities, they need a data transmission platform that sends the electricity company the utility performance information on all necessary aspects for the transformation substations to perform their function.

Transformation centers also communicate with smart meters through the communications platforms, which in turn send the electricity usage data recorded in the meters to the electricity company.

This system represented a major advance on the previous system where a qualified person had to manually record the data collected from each electricity meter.

Specific communications protocols

Specific protocols are required for RTUs, PLCs and smart meters to communicate with communications equipment. RTUs and PLCs use TCP/IP communication protocols like MODBUS, IEC 101-104 or DNP3, associated with electrical power systems monitoring and control.

The devices that communicate with the electric meters use Power Line Communication technologies (PLC – not to be confused with programmable logic controllers). These communications are established according to communications standards such as PRIME v1.4 or G3, which comprise specifications for compatibility, frequencies, and voltages, among others

Key features of communications equipment

The role of communications is key for electrical distribution, but in order for such systems to perform their functions, they must be properly designed and include certain key features such as:

  • Ruggedized housing, the external structure of the device must be capable of withstanding a wide range of temperatures and be protected from humidity and electrical impulses to ensure the systems will work in the conditions at the transformation centers.
  • Multiple connection methods, RTU and PLC devices can be truly diverse, so communications routers must have all the technologies going (ethernet, fiber optics, mobile communications, serial port, LoRaWAN, PLC…) to ensure these devices are compatible with all scenarios.
  • Compatible with communications protocols, in the same way that compatibility must be ensured through multiple connection methods, it is also necessary for communications to include all sorts of specific communications protocols like those mentioned above.
  • Cybersecurity systems, nowadays, cyber attacks are having a profound impact on companies’ development. It is therefore essential for communications equipment operating in the electrical industry to have specific cybersecurity systems for the OT (Operational Technology) area.
  • Certifications, since all systems in the electrical sector must be duly certified by accredited laboratories in a variety of fields such as magnetic immunity, electrical, climatic and mechanical resistance. EN 610000, EN 60068-78 and EN 61000 are among the most sought-after certifications.

Conclusion

Significant technological advances have been made in the field of distribution networks through telecommunications. These advances have led to a reduction in personnel and operating material costs, where, in turn, there have been  advances in terms of  operational security and computer security with cybersecurity systems.

Teldat plays a key role in the technological evolution by developing equipment with all the features required (discussed throughout this blog post) by the world’s largest electrical distribution companies and working every day to develop innovative solutions that respond to the future needs of electrical distribution networks.

Sources:

Javier Sanchez de la Poza

Javier Sanchez de la Poza

Bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications Systems Engineering. Specialized in IoT Mobility & Smart Grids. Product Manager IoT at Teldat

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