John McDonald, senior principle consultant and manager, substation automation, KEMA Consulting, is one of a handful of industry figures involved in standards development. He possesses knowledge of engineering fundamentals and awareness of the ever-expanding role of information technology and automation trends. He is a spokesperson for substation automation and integration and a writer who combines top-tier technical insight with a down-to-earth capability to convey information in understandable-sometimes homespun Midwestern style-terms to his audience, be it comprised of client utility personnel, peers in the industry or graduate engineering students.

As senior principal consultant and manager of substation automation for KEMA Consulting, McDonald possesses more than 25 years of industry experience. He had multi-year stints at Cooper Power and Advanced Control Systems, and he worked for KEMA clients in North America and internationally.

In January, I had a chance to review with McDonald several of the key issues confronting utility management, operations and engineering staff, equipment vendors, standards development groups, and other consultants active in substation automation and integration.

With the impact of deregulation resonating throughout the United States as well as the international experience gained thus far, McDonald is adamant in his belief that successful distribution utilities must develop substantive programs for substation automation and integration in order to remain viable entities, let alone competitive organizations.

McDonald describes the deregulated environment as one that will require more information from the distribution substation and the lower voltage substations that typically have not received attention from utility operations and engineering teams. "For the low-voltage distribution substation, and certainly for all larger distribution substations, now is the time to take advantage of new automation trends that have a direct effect on lowering utility operating costs, and even more importantly, provide a great deal more information," McDonald says.

Regarding the all-too-prevalent "minimal spending" strategy for infrastructure re-investment that seems to be the mindset of many American utility management teams, McDonald indicates, "It's clear that transcos (transmission companies) will own transmission substations and discos (distribution companies) will own and operate and maintain distribution substations." He further states, "There continue to be thousands of substations that have never been automated beyond a grouped alarm signal, not even with a basic RTU (remote terminal unit)."

McDonald, who coincidentally has a masters degree in finance from UC Berkeley to supplement his undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees from Purdue University, stated, "From an economic perspective, there is no problem with justifying automation in new T&D substations. Typically in the new substation environment, all substation data is going to come from the current generation of intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), possibly in conjunction with programmable logic controllers (PLCs)."

The bigger problem, in McDonald's view, is with existing substations. In only a few cases in North America has utility management directed that automation is to be implemented beyond a pilot basis in its substations-with Pennsylvania Power & Light serving as one such example of a system-wide deployment of advanced technology. However, cost-justification for many utility teams continues to be difficult to quantify. "In such cases, utilities may wish to take a `qualitative approach' to justifying substation investment," says McDonald. Unfortunately, the utility budget simply has not paid enough heed to substation requirements. "Large SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) and EMS (energy management systems) do a great job for generation and transmission, but we continue to need to pay more attention to specialized monitoring and control and information-gathering from distribution substations."

Justifying the Investment McDonald believes there are at least four points that can help utility planners in today's tough infrastructure investment environment to get management approval for increased substation investments. These points are: 1) dealing with the increasingly competitive power marketplace, 2) multi-purpose needs for, and use of, information among several departments, information that is available only from the substation, 3) shift by utilities toward a true customer service orientation and, 4) a "follow the leader" outlook among some utility managers. Further, there is a strong trend away from periodic maintenance to condition-based maintenance. In order to perform condition-based maintenance, you need remote diagnostic equipment, including on-line instruments that can monitor and report back on the condition and status of substation equipment such as transformers, breakers, switchgear and the like. 2) McDonald further hints at the idea that "utilities really don't know how to do a true cost/benefit analysis, which in the case of substations, cuts across multiple business units and shared responsibilities for substation ownership, operation and maintenance, and the benefits that accrue to these multiple internal parties. There is a need for utilities to expand the focus beyond just the substation to include distribution automation in general, a strategic approach that assesses the role and value of substations, feeders and customer premises activities. The result, typically, is increased funding for automation that benefits the entire distribution infrastructure."

McDonald believes strongly in the need to develop a "strategic planning initiative for distribution automation."

"Three financial measures can assist the utility team in this process," McDonald says, "including a study of benefit cost ratios, an analysis of initial costs, and an assessment of the payback period."

The Road to Automation Regarding the issue of how a utility, especially a mid-size utility, can get started on learning about substation automation, McDonald had several pieces of advice.

"First, talk to other utilities that have gained some know-how with successful implementations of substation automation," McDonald says. "Then, talk to a consultant. Smaller firms especially may need some outside assistance, yet their history is one of minimal consultant use." McDonald suggests that withtravel restrictions currently in place for many utilities, "bringing in a consultant to do an intensive overview of substation automation is a cost-effective way to have several utility staff and managers get up to speed quickly."

McDonald urges utility project team members to become active in industry-wide activities, such as participation in Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) activities at the local, regional or national level, where development of industry standards is pursued. He also says that occasional attendance at a trade event can bring a lot of suppliers and services organizations to one place at one time. In addition, a utility may opt to bring in a consultant for a day or two of introductory training with some hands-on practical benefit.

McDonald describes five clear avenues of potential utility involvement in substation automation education, ranging from a clear commitment to just wanting to get up to speed. First, McDonald recommends participation in the Utility Substation Communication Initiative, sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), with KEMA Consulting serving as program manager, as "a great way to learn and participate right alongside some of the best and most committed substation automation-oriented utilities, suppliers and consultants. There are already some 60-plus companies and utilities involved with the EPRI program." McDonald further notes that "Initiative members regularly receive progress reports about vendor implementations of communications standards, and information about the group's activities is posted on FTP sites for members who may miss a meeting now and then.

"The IEEE Substations Committee offers another great way to become involved in the actual development of standards that will affect how devices in the substation and out on the feeders can be expected to communicate in the future. The IEEE Relaying Committee is also a key body in the formulation of related critical standards for data formatting and transmission."

Standards...Required Reading McDonald lists the following publications as required reading for anyone intent on learning more about substation standards activities: IEEE Std 1379 (intelligent electronic devices [IED] protocol recommendations), IEEE Std C37.1 (Definition and specifications for SCADA) and IEEE Std 37.2 (Electrical power system device function numbers). Internationally, these and related American standards efforts are strongly linked to the continuing international development of IEC 61850, which in turn will influence the product development activities of all substation equipment suppliers.

Adding to his thoughts on current standards-in-progress that will likely shape the North American marketplace in particular, McDonald notes that three specific efforts are already starting to gel and be called out in requests for information issued by utilities. First for IED protocols is UCA 2.0 with MMS. In McDonald's view, this approach will soon be the way to go, pending the results of field trials this year. The local area network (LAN) of choice for substations will be Ethernet, while IEDs will probably conform to the recently developed Generic Object Model for Substation and Feeder Equipment, or GOMSFE. Implications for DNP 3.0, Modbus and Modbus Plus, according to McDonald, are that the use of these currently available "de facto" standard formats and protocols, while popular at this time, will probably decrease over the next five-to-seven years. McDonald also urges utilities that may be purchasing substation equipment with today's popular protocols to demand an eventual migration path to the developing standards.

When asked whether or not the PLC will replace the RTU as the primary data acquisition unit and local decision-making device for substations, McDonald indicates that "in new substations, this is already happening on a broad scale. The 'up' side for utility planners is lower costs. The 'down' side with relying on low-cost IEDs to provide real-time information through a substation LAN directly to a SCADA or EMS master, may be the update rates and slower calculations, a function of the IED design."

The Value of a Distribution Focus Size isn't everything when it comes to utility involvement in substation integration and automation, at least at the distribution level where McDonald believes that smaller utilities who tend to be solely distribution-focused are more likely to have better ideas of substation market requirements than their larger counterpart utilities whose history has more likely focused on self-sufficiency in power generation or on a balanced transmission system.

McDonald indicates that these mid-size and smaller utilities can do a better job at many aspects of distribution automation for much lower costs simply because "distribution of electric power is their reason for being and is the focus of their engineers and operations personnel as well as management."

McDonald does not mince words when asked whether there is a future for the smaller niche-market equipment and services specialist firms active in the substation (and distribution) automation market. "I am disappointed in the so-called 'world class' suppliers, when it comes to the substation automation arena. The big companies have a lot of pencil sharpening to do yet, and they have to place more emphasis on driving down costs, improving their product architecture and equipment flexibility, and adopting a stronger customer orientation. The smaller companies can develop products faster, bring them out at lower costs, and seem to be more in tune with the street level needs of today's changing utility."

With the imminent arrival of the next millennium, McDonald says he is not heading for the mountains just yet. He believes there is still a lot of year 2000 compliance work to be done in 1999 by utility teams inventorying, testing and certifying compliance with embedded systems and devices, the very heart of the power distribution environment.

An Historical Perspective Regarding the history of substation automation-related programs, McDonald reports that Europe and parts of Asia, especially Australia, were more advanced at an earlier time than were North American utilities. He weaves an interesting history of activity. First, there are more European and Australian utilities that have made system-wide commitments to substation automation programs than has been the case in the United States and Canada, where piloting of new substation technology for multiple years continues to this day.

McDonald suggests that the European utilities have a history of awarding turnkey contracts for substations and for related instruments and controls, all to a single supplier, which was selected from a short list of large trans-European suppliers. The U.S. experience was to break up such turnkey contracts into smaller awards with U.S. utility engineers wanting more say in individual product or technology component sources of supply.

Whereas a European utility typically may have relied on a single vendor for dozens of product and equipment types, an American substation typically would include products and equipment from multiple vendors. McDonald reports that the U.S. influence on the international community has been felt, for today most international utilities have drawn back from turnkey contracts in favor of multiple smaller awards, allowing them to standardize their automation strategy. Meanwhile, U.S. utilities are more frequently making use of consultants than they had in the past.

All in all, McDonald sees a bright future for substation automation in general, especially for those firms and utilities that take a standards-based approach to the process. McDonald plans to continue his commitment to working with the IEEE and IEC, as well as writing technical articles and teaching seminars.

The Stats on KEMA KEMA Consulting, with headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia, is a power engineering consulting and electric utility operations information technology services, and is a division of the Dutch-based KEMA Corp. KEMA Consulting's Substation Automation business is involved in automation projects in South America, Europe, Asia and Australia as well as throughout North America. KEMA Consulting is the project manager for EPRI's Utility Substation Communication Initiative, which enjoys support from more than 40 utilities and more than 20 vendors. KEMA Consulting also maintains a role in industry standards working groups at both IEEE and IEC levels.