Virtualization is an important step in bringing clean electricity to the world

Virtualization is an important step in bringing clean electricity to the world

Sustainability is top of mind today. We see government policies being put in place to reach ambitious net zero targets, as well as rapidly increasing adoption of renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, and hydrogen to power operations while reducing carbon footprints. Industries are also increasingly striving to reduce the negative impact they may be having on the environment, and many are looking for the right tools to support that change for the better.

These ongoing changes have a fundamental impact on the electrical grid, which also means new challenges for protection and automation systems. It is clear that we need new approaches and innovations. The virtualization of products is one such innovative approach which is set to play an important role in achieving carbon neutrality.

What is virtualization?

In simple terms, virtualization means creating a virtual, rather than actual, version of something. The main goal of virtualization is to provide a new operational environment, which is not bound to any particular computer hardware or operating system. By effectively separating functionality from hardware, virtualization allows integrated, system-wide upgrades and additional functionality without additional hardware.

Virtualization has been widely adopted in the field of information technology (IT) starting early on with very simple virtualization of print server workloads, to more easily manage printing tasks from multiple computers to a single printer. Over the years, virtualization has evolved to the point that modern data centers have computers which are entirely virtual – none of their functionality is bound to any specific hardware. This allows the continuous addition of computational functionalities – like new applications for energy management – to the single, centralized virtual system, without adding additional hardware. Since the additional applications or functions can be independent of vendor and operating system, they can send operational commands to any connected computer/device, which is compatible, that is, adheres to the same standards. The ability to upgrade systems with vital new applications and functions thus becomes faster and more cost-efficient.

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Why virtualize in the realm of electricity distribution?

In conventional substations, different devices are assigned different tasks, each performing its own task in isolation. The vendor-specific software-hardware combinations in each individual device make it resource-intensive to increase or modify functionality. First, you have to modify the physical assets, which requires specialist knowledge across an ever-growing range of devices and functions. As functionalities increase, so does the level of expertise required to maintain or modify the equipment. Substations often contain a blend of old and new equipment, and operators struggle to maintain all of the varied hardware elements. Further, all these devices require space in the substation.

Instead of having multiple computers each doing their own specific task, virtualization allows one computer to have multiple different functionalities. With virtualized functionality, a substation owner can replace different kinds of old equipment with new equipment which is all of the same kind. This substantially reduces the amount of knowledge required to maintain the substation.

The added value of software comes from the intelligent decisions happening autonomously, not from the boxes running the software. However, it is often the case that specific software is packaged in specific hardware. In other words, if you need to increase or modify the functionality, you need to modify the physical assets. The more functionalities there are, the more there are different things requiring additional expertise. With virtualization, there is only one kind of hardware running all the different tasks, thus it effectively eliminates the need for the users to learn the specifics of all the various physical products.

Building a smart substation with equipment certified to IEC 61850, the international standard defining communication protocols for intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), means the devices will work with other products that comply with the standard. That gives the substation owners the flexibility to choose any supplier, purely according to their requirements.

Smart substations support a more sustainable energy landscape

Utilities and companies alike are working to meet the needs of the rapidly changing energy environment and are exploring ways to not only add new, but also upgrade existing electrical installations and substations to meet the increasing demands. Virtualization can help achieve efficiency gains in substations, as it allows to easily add new functionality as requirements change. Further, upgrading an existing substation into a smart one ensures less new material is used, another important sustainability improvement.

Virtualizing protection and control

The next generation of protection and control concepts target to be based on software instead of hardware platforms, i.e., virtualization. At ABB, we are working with UK Power Networks, as a part of the Constellation project, to develop a wide area protection system that uses the 5G telecoms network for communication between substations. The system will be based on the IEC 61850 standard, and the scheme will enable real-time monitoring and control of distributed energy resources (DER) such as wind and solar farms. As a part of the project, the protection algorithms that are traditionally embedded in IEDs will be digitalized.

With thousands of substations across Great Britain, UK Power Networks’ new approach has the potential to unlock 1.4 gigawatts (GW) of network capacity that will enable further integration of DER. This would achieve annual savings of 19 million tons of CO2 emissions and would be a significant step in the right direction for the UK to reach Net Zero by 2050.

What comes next

Virtualization allows us to create useful services and applications without being tied to specific hardware. Through virtualization, many systems are accommodated on one platform. We reduce the number and type of devices and hardware in substations, saving money and natural resources, and simplifying maintenance.

The electrical grid will continue to change which means that the solutions enabling the grid must also continue to evolve. Virtualization will be a beneficial tool in making electrical grids sustainable and resilient – a key step in bringing clean electricity to the world.

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