Electric Utility Distributes Control to Move Grid Into 21st Century

Aug. 8, 2013
LocalGrid Technologies deployed a network of CompactRIO controllers from NI to help Toronto Hydro-Electric System create a decentralized control system to better handle increasing demands from the city’s rapidly growing infrastructure.

Many discussions about the smart grid point to an electrical distribution system that has changed very little in the 100+ years since the centralized, unidirectional system was first laid out. Although the concept of a “smart” grid can seem elusive, there are in fact very workable solutions being put into place now to help electric utilities function more effectively.

Toronto Hydro-Electric System and LocalGrid Technologies have been working to overhaul the electrical grid in one of North America’s largest cities. They presented some impressive uses of distributed control and big data this week at NIWeek in Austin.

Toronto Hydro is the largest municipal electricity distribution company in Canada, serving a city of 2.8 million people. It distributes about 19% of electricity consumed in Ontario.

The 100-year-old company certainly faces challenges, the greatest being its aged infrastructure, said Sushma Narisetty-Gupta, an electrical engineer for Toronto Hydro. About 28% of the utility’s assets are past their end of life, she said, and another 20% will reach end of life by 2024.

Add to that aging infrastructure an incredibly booming demand on the distribution system. Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, but it actually has the largest number of new construction highrises, Narisetty-Gupta said.

So Toronto Hydro has started working with LocalGrid Technologies to bring its grid into the 21st century. LocalGrid approached Toronto Hydro two years ago with an idea for a project based on its experience with National Instruments (NI) and embedded systems, according to Bob Leigh, the turnkey provider’s CEO.

Toronto Hydro’s grid modernization roadmap, an ongoing capital plan to renew and reinforce its aging infrastructure, will allow widespread adoption of new technologies with decentralized control as its centerpiece.

Using an octopus—its central brain helped out by small amounts of intelligence in its tentacles—as an analogy, Narisetty-Gupta explained the utility’s move to decentralized control. Distributed control enables small volumes of data to be processed per node, fast processing, small communication networks and low costs. “We believe it will take us forward and will be in place for years to come,” she said.

Up until 10 years ago, very few electric utilities were doing anything to upgrade their technologies, Leigh said. But they face a growing number of challenges that are forcing them to reconsider their outdated technologies:

  • Utilities must bring on renewable energy sources, improve service levels, reduce outages and reduce operating costs.
  • Existing infrastructure (especially in North America and Europe) is reaching end of life.
  • Dated electrical grid designs make it difficult to bring renewables online and hamper adoption of electric vehicles.
  • The U.S. Department of Energy and Department of Homeland Security are demanding tighter security on existing grid infrastructures.

After 50 years without technology evolution, suddenly they’re undergoing considerable transformation. “The industry will spend $7 trillion in the next 10 or so years,” Leigh said. “That’s a huge number.”

Technology solutions lie in what Leigh refers to as the “dawn of the microgrid.” They must provide secure and private data transmitted from remote sites and wireless connections; the ability to send a lot of data over low- or limited-bandwidth networks; and interoperability of devices with different protocols and between vendors. “The trend is to build standards that suit your needs as a company. That doesn’t work for the grid,” Leigh noted, commenting on the need to get various devices from different generations talking with each other. “Standards are going to be huge.”

LocalGrid has based its control solution on NI’s CompactRIO platform, receiving a very early beta unit for the recently released NI-9068. As Leigh detailed, it fulfilled key requirements for the system:

  • Solutions need to be modular and scalable to fit varying needs. “Every subsystem, every area of the city, is going to have a different problem,” Leigh said.
  • Commercially available off-the-shelf technology will enable engineers to get solutions out quickly, then modify as needed, Leigh said. “One of the key problems with doing this is utilities don’t yet know what ROI they’re going to get,” he said. “They have some guesses, but we know the system a year from now may change.
  • Technologies must support communication, PQM, data analytics, control loops and signals.
  • They must support security requirements. “The fact that we’re able to run on Linux now makes all the difference in the world to us,” Leigh noted.

LocalGrid’s technology is a great example of making use of big data, noted Ahmed Mahmoud, NI’s senior group manager for ECM marketing, in a separate conversation. With LocalGrid deploying a large number of CompactRIO’s, they noted how important it was to have intelligence on the device itself. “If you get intelligence on the device itself, you don’t have to get all the data back to a central location,” Mahmoud said.

The solution that LocalGrid has developed for Toronto Hydro deploys controllers at the substation, on feeders, and at transformers, providing detailed real-time analysis of power assets, Leigh explained. It replaces devices that each do only one task with devices that can perform multiple tasks, to reduce deployment and maintenance costs. Embedded software has been built from the ground up to be a distributed energy management network that is compatible across platforms, including seamless integration of third-party systems, IEC-61850 model of devices, user and device security, a data model that allows any data type with customizable real-time calculations, and a plug-and-play architecture for fast and easy custom code deployment.

LocalGrid has focused considerable attention on cybersecurity for smart grid applications. Its solution applies user authentication on the operating system to secure the device at the root level, device authentication to secure connections between devices, application authenticaton and permission for data access to restrict individual application access on the network, and encrypted databases and configuration files to secure physical access. LocalGrid secures existing SCADA devices by converting outdated edge device protocols to a secure network. The communication and network architecture is designed to secure the network from the inside out, not relying on just the firewall, Leigh said.

About the Author

Aaron Hand | Editor-in-Chief, ProFood World

Aaron Hand has three decades of experience in B-to-B publishing with a particular focus on technology. He has been with PMMI Media Group since 2013, much of that time as Executive Editor for Automation World, where he focused on continuous process industries. Prior to joining ProFood World full time in late 2020, Aaron worked as Editor at Large for PMMI Media Group, reporting for all publications on a wide variety of industry developments, including advancements in packaging for consumer products and pharmaceuticals, food and beverage processing, and industrial automation. He took over as Editor-in-Chief of ProFood World in 2021. Aaron holds a B.A. in Journalism from Indiana University and an M.S. in Journalism from the University of Illinois.

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