• Saravanan Balamurugan

A Protection Engineer's Diary - The Future of Protection Systems

Just like everyone, I have always wondered, what does the future hold for me? All the questions about the future, the ‘whats’, the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ makes me think of a much more basic question. Is my career future-proof?

"The best way to predict the future is to create it." - Abraham Lincoln

The upcoming trends in power systems are always brought on by the industry giants such as ABB, SIEMENS, GE, SEL and Schneider. Each manufacturer brings something to the table - innovation, ingenuity, passion and persistence, though they all serve the same purpose – to overcome the challenges of the continually changing energy systems.

I have been hearing the term “IEC61850” and “Substation Automation Systems” constantly ever since I have entered this field. There is no discussion about the future of this. This is the future. Period.

But it is the fundamental changes that cause major disruptions in our industry. The fundamental block of the protection system is the protection relay or the Intelligent Electronic Device (IED). Now, each of the IEDs contains multiple protection functionality built-in. Any engineer can tell you with the relay model info, the main protection functions an IED can offer. For example, SIEMENS 7SA, MiCOM 443, ABB REL series etc. mean distance protection relays. But there is no major variation between the IED hardware. For instance, a distance protection function and directional overcurrent protection function, both requires Current (CT) Inputs, Voltage (VT) inputs and a bunch of digital I/Os based on the system requirements. What changes is the complexity of the algorithm, the computing capabilities and the logic behind the IED functioning? If given the best possible computing power, in the end, it is the software which varies between the different IED.

To give a perspective, all the secondary injection test kits out there, say from Omicron or Megger, have the same hardware. But it is the software modules, that maximises the equipment utility.

So what if there is a black box, with all the necessary analog and digital I/Os, along with the communication modules and what if I tell you that you can choose whatever protection blocks you need, and I will provide you with an optimized software (in this case, a firmware) to run the black box as a flexible IED or your very own customized protection relay.

Say hello to REX 640. A new member of the protection and control family of relays from ABB, with Modular Software. For more info: https://new.abb.com/medium-voltage/distribution-automation/campaigns/protection-and-control-rex640.

This IED literally just announced to the world, that your imagination is the limit.

Coming to a higher level in the hierarchy, the new term, which I recently came across is Central Protection. Meaning a protection device or IED can provide all the protection, monitoring, operation and all automation tasks. This results in a central unit or IED performing the tasks of multiple IEDs. Considering that all the recent IEDs are modular in nature, it is easy to expand the relay hardware based on system requirements. With the rise of merging units, we can connect multiple VT and CT signals to a single IED, without any major wiring change. Here is where IEC61850 shines. The application of process bus eases the gap between primary power systems and secondary protection systems. Moreover, the interoperability factor of IEC61850 means you can use the merging unit of any manufacturer for sending the sampled values to any IED. This central unit can also issue GOOSE messages to the respective breakers or for annunciation.

Both concepts mark a fundamental change in the way we view protection systems. This results in a paradigm shift from the traditional “one IED per bay” concept to a more flexible and robust solution.

I have been doing research in protection systems for close to three years now, starting from my Masters all the way to my ongoing doctoral studies, and the one thing that always amazes me is not the technology itself, but by what the people do with the technology. It has made me realise that innovation is nothing, but iterative learning followed by its application, fuelled by the passion to solve problems and to bring about change.

Now, the question I would like to answer is “Am I ready for the future of protection systems?”

Disclaimer: This article represents the opinion of the author and is not an advertisement of any kind.

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