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Orchestrating data acquisition and communications for utilities with a single programming platform

Utilities face an ongoing challenge of orchestrating data acquisition and communications between ageing measurement and control equipment across their networks. From switch poles to large-scale transmission and distribution stations, the equipment used to monitor and control power delivery across a utility’s network can use multiple communication protocols from different generations. They also vary considerably in age, configurability, performance and complexity.

Today, field engineers must use multiple programming languages simply to maintain and upgrade the wide array of equipment and technologies that have accumulated in a network over the decades. Added challenges include lack of vendor support for older equipment, difficulties in sourcing parts, and lack of compatibility with newer devices and software. Until utilities replace all of their ageing remote terminal units (RTUs) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) equipment, these challenges will continue to persist.

“What we have currently is a high level of complexity and therefore inefficiency in managing our field equipment,” says a lead measurement controls technician from an electric power company in Kentucky, USA that serves 1.1 million people throughout the state. “With some of the equipment, you can’t even buy parts,” says the technician. “New software may not be backwards compatible with our older devices. We even have some RTUs that require us to carry 32-bit processors just to be able to program them.”

Complicating communications management are the varied generations of communication protocols that older equipment uses, which include Conitel, serial DNP and Modbus. With Internet Protocol (IP) as the current and go-forward communication standard for most utilities, the older equipment, which may not be upgradeable, must be able to share their data for the rest of their usable life until they are eventually replaced.

Using a single platform from NovaTech Automation

A solution that the power company has adopted to address its technology management needs is to use a single programming platform that can orchestrate the communications between all the equipment and communications protocols at a location in their network of over 120 transmission and 500 distribution substations.

“Our goal was to find a single platform that will function correctly in all the different equipment we manage,” says the technician. “Our department is responsible for SCADA and metering from transmission to distribution substations, switch poles and everything in between. We have to be able to program all these devices.”

The company uses an Orion integrated communications platform produced by NovaTech Automation. The platform accesses and distributes SCADA, protection and other operational data to quickly identify and resolve problems. It supports Conitel, DNP, IP, Modbus, serial, ST fibre and I/O ports.

States the technician, “Because we program a wide range of devices across a variety of relays and meters, having a single platform to program now makes it so much easier for our field team.”

The power company uses the OrionLX platform for its transmission stations and the smaller OrionLXm for its distribution stations and SCADA controls at some of its power plants and remote switching sites.

According to the technician, the power company initially trialled the Orion platform in a transmission station, after which it added more units as it upgraded or built new switchyards. The power technician estimates that they now have over 50 units in the transmission stations and about 70 more in the distribution stations.

Configuring RTUs to each station’s needs

Ease of configurability is critical, given the wide variety of environments field engineering teams face when they work across the stations in their network.

Despite having 16 connections on the back of its new Orion RTUs, the company needed more connectivity in some of its stations. “Typically, an RTU will have up to 16 connections for a combination of serial and fibre channels,” says the technician. “But we have some stations that have 40-50 devices, and we needed a way to extend the reach of our new RTUs. We worked with NovaTech Automation to engineer an Orion-based port expander that operates essentially as an ethernet port switch. Information passes through to more devices without having us pay for additional RTUs.”

For their largest switchyards, the electric company deploys multiple port expanders together with the new RTU. Working with NovaTech, they designed a pre-built cabinet that is pre-wired with its own UPS as the standard package for the distribution stations.

Beyond addressing varying capacity needs at stations, utilities also need to easily reconfigure equipment based on the requirements of a specific station’s environment. “You may have ordered an RTU configured for fibre only to get to the substation to find that you really need RS-485 serial connections,” says the technician. “And when you are dealing with an outage, you are doing everything possible to get the station back online. A flexible platform can enable you to convert a serial port to an IP comms quickly. What you want is the ability to be able to open up an RTU, change the card, and be back up and running without having to wait and order a new RTU or make a major hardware change.”

Much of today’s fieldwork is focused on the management of the software, which includes matching the programming software to the hardware revision. Rebuilds may even be necessary if an RTU goes offline after deleting a program. As a result, technicians need to be proficient in programming to troubleshoot RTU issues.

At the power company, the technicians must be able to program and function with all the software before they are allowed to go out in the field on their own. This is especially important for a relatively small team that is responsible for a very large geographic territory where they will encounter all variations of installations. Consistency of knowledge and applications is critical.

“We probably have 35 programs on our computers that our team of five field technicians need to be trained on to support IEDs, meters, transducers and more,” says the technician. “We even have one manufacturer from whom we have six different program versions for different applications based on firmware or hardware revisions. With NovaTech Orion we just need to know the single “NCD” program.”

Utilities inventory management consolidation

With the proliferation of hardware deployed over the years, inventory management is another pain point for utilities. Utilities typically need to order certain types of RTUs based on the size of the substation being built or upgraded.

Instead, the electric power company stocks a standard distribution cabinet it developed with NovaTech. For its distribution RTUs, it includes a specifically configured Orion RTU, a heater, and termination blocks for wiring I/O which are then wired to the device. It purchases these platforms to stock in its warehouse so that when it builds a new substation, the team has a cabinet ready. The engineers  just need to program, install and test it.

After developing an RTU cabinet, NovaTech will build it back on its next application. If these applications are very similar, the company has built the NCD application files and included them with the shipment. When the application is standardised to the point that each substation can almost be the same, the application can be stored on a shelf ready to be taken to the next substation and will only need to be tweaked to be ready.

The ability to orchestrate the communications not only within each station but across a network increases in complexity with time because of the proliferation of equipment, software and the evolution of communication protocols. Consolidating the programming needed to support this wide array of technologies through a single programming platform can be a valuable opportunity for a power company to manage its network more efficiently and, as a result, better serve its customers.

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