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One of the significant challenges that substation engineers face is justifying substation automation investments. The positive impacts that automation has on operating costs, increased power quality, and reduced outage response are well known. But little attention is paid to how the use of a communication standard impacts the cost to build and operate the substation. Legacy communication protocols were typically developed with the dual objective of providing the necessary functions required by electric power systems while minimizing the number of bytes that were used by the protocol because of severe bandwidth limitations that were typical of the serial link technology available 10-15 years ago when many of these protocols were initially developed. Later, as Ethernet and modern networking protocols like TCP/IP became widespread, these legacy protocols were adapted to run over TCP/IP-Ethernet.

This approach provided the same basic electric power system capabilities as the serial link version while bringing the advantages of modern networking technologies to the substation. But this approach has a fundamental flaw: the protocols being used were still designed to minimize the bytes on the wire and do not take advantage of the vast increase in bandwidth that modern networking technologies deliver by providing a higher level of functionality that can significantly reduce the implementation and operational costs of substation automation.

IEC 61850 is unique. IEC 61850 is not a former serial link protocol recast onto TCP/IP-Ethernet. IEC 61850 was designed from the ground up to operate over modern networking technologies and delivers an unprecedented amount of functionality that is simply not available from legacy    communications    protocols.    These    unique characteristics of IEC 61850 have a direct and positive impact on the cost to design, build, install, commission, and operate power systems. While legacy protocols on Ethernet enable the substation engineer to do exactly the same thing that was done 10-15 years ago using Ethernet, IEC 61850 enables fundamental improvements in the substation automation process that is simply not possible with a legacy approach, with or without TCP/IP-Ethernet. To better understand the specific benefits we will first examine some of the key features and capabilities of IEC 61850 and then explain how these result in significant benefits that cannot be achieved with the legacy approach

Key Features

The features and characteristics of IEC 61850 that enable unique advantages are so numerous that they cannot practically be listed here. Some of these characteristics are seemingly small but yet can have a tremendous impact on substation automation systems.

For instance, the use of VLANs and priority flags for GOOSE and SMV enable much more intelligent use of Ethernet switches that in and of itself can deliver significant benefits to users that aren’t available with other approaches. For the sake of brevity, we will list here some of the more key features that provide significant benefits to users:

  • Use of a Virtualized Model. The virtualized model of logical devices, logical nodes, ACSI, and CDCs enables definition of the data, services, and behavior of devices to be defined in addition to the protocols that are used to define how the data is transmitted over the network.
  • Use of Names for All Data. Every element of IEC 61850 data is named using descriptive strings to describe the data. Legacy protocols, on the other hand, tend to identify data by storage location and use index numbers, register numbers and the like to describe data.
  • All Object Names are Standardized and Defined in a Power System Context. The names of the data in the IEC 61850 device are not dictated by the device vendor or configured by the user. All names are defined in the standard and provided in a power system context that enables the engineer to immediately identify the meaning of data without having to define mappings that relate index numbers and register numbers to power system data like voltage and current.
  • Devices are Self-Describing. Client applications that communicate with IEC 61850 devices are able to download the description of all the data supported by the device from the device without any manual configuration of data objects or names.
  • High-Level Services. ACSI supports a wide variety of services that far exceeds what is available in the typical legacy protocol. GOOSE, GSSE, SMV, and logs are just a few of the unique capabilities of IEC 61850.
  • Standardized Configuration Language. SCL enables the configuration of a device and its role in the power system to be precisely defined using XML files.

Major Benefits

The features described above for IEC 61850 deliver substantial benefits to users that understand and take advantage of them. Rather than simply approaching an IEC 61850 based system in the same way as any other system, a user that understands and takes advantage of the unique capabilities will realize significant benefits that are not available using legacy approaches.

  • Eliminate Procurement Ambiguity. Not only can SCL be used to configure devices and power systems, SCL can also be used to precisely define user requirement for substations and devices. Using SCL a user can specify exactly and unambiguously what is expected to be provided in each device that is not subject to misinterpretation by suppliers.
  • Lower Installation Cost. IEC 61850 enables devices to quickly exchange data and status using GOOSE and GSSE over the station LAN without having to wire separate links for each relay. This significantly reduces wiring costs by more fully utilizing the station LAN bandwidth for these signals and construction costs by reducing the need for trenching, ducts, conduit, etc.
  • Lower Transducer Costs. Rather than requiring separate transducers for each device needing a particular signal, a single merging unit supporting SMV can deliver these signals to many devices using a single transducer lowering transducer, wiring, calibration, and maintenance costs.
  • Lower Commissioning Costs. The cost to configure and commission devices is drastically reduced because IEC 61850 devices don’t require as much manual configuration as legacy devices. Client applications no longer need to manually configured for each point they need to access because they can retrieve the points list directly from the device or import it via an SCL file. Many applications require nothing more than setting up a network address in order to establish communications. Most manual configuration is eliminated drastically reducing errors and rework.
  • Lower Equipment Migration Costs. Because IEC 61850 defines more of the externally visible aspects of the devices besides just the encoding of data on the wire, the cost for equipment migrations is minimized. Behavioral differences from one brand of device to another is minimized and, in some cases, completely eliminated. All devices share the same naming conventions minimizing the reconfiguration of client applications when those devices are changed.
  • Lower Extension Costs. Because IEC 61850 devices don’t have to be configured to expose data, new extensions are easily added into the substation without having to reconfigure devices to expose data that was previously not accessed. Adding devices and applications into an existing IEC 61850 system can be done with only a minimal impact, if any, on any of the existing equipment.
  • Lower Integration Costs. By utilizing the same networking technology that is being widely used across the utility enterprise the cost to integrate substation data into the enterprise is substantially reduced. Rather than installing costly RTUs that have to be manually configured and maintained for each point of data needed in control center and engineering office application, IEC 61850 networks are capable of delivering data without separate communications front-ends or reconfiguring devices.
  • Implement New Capabilities. The advanced services and unique features of IEC 61850 enables new capabilities that are simply not possible with most legacy protocols. Wide area protection schemes that would normally be cost prohibitive become much more feasible. Because devices are already connected to the substation LAN, the incremental cost for accessing or sharing more device data becomes insignificant enabling new and innovative applications that would be too costly to produce otherwise.


IEC 61850 is now released to the industry. Ten parts of the standard are now International Standards (part 10 is a draft international standard). This standard addresses most of the issues that migration to the digital world entails, especially, standardization of data names, creation of a comprehensive set of services, implementation over standard protocols and hardware, and definition of a process bus.

Multi-vendor interoperability has been demonstrated and compliance certification processes are being established. Discussions are underway to utilize IEC 61850 as the substation to control center communication protocol. IEC 61850 will become the protocol of choice as utilities migrate to network solutions for the substations and beyond.

SOURCE: Ralph Mackiewicz SISCO, Inc. Sterling Heights, MI USA


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