The Newton-Evans Research Co. has released research findings from its mid-year study of North American utility substation officials. More than 100 large and mid-size electric utility organizations, accounting for more than one-third of substations, customers and revenues, participated in the study.

The utilities in the study indicated plans to spend about $130-150 million this year on substation automation and integration activities. In turn, this suggests that more than $350 million is being spent by the entire community of more than 3000 electric power utilities this year for substation-related integration and automation programs, said the study.

Many of the large North American utilities participating in the study continue to buy from what they believe to be "best in class" suppliers, whether they are global corporations or smaller substation A&I market specialists. Others are buying individual components, equipment and products and providing their own substation software development and integration rather than outsourcing this effort to construction and engineering firms. The North American strategy is in sharp contrast to many international regions, wherein utility spending for substation programs is often purchased on a "turnkey" basis from a single supplier, said the study.

Among other highlights in the North American study are:

  • 81 percent of the respondents have substation automation and integration programs underway in mid-2008. This is a higher rate than was observed in five earlier studies conducted since 1996. Potential obstacles to substation automation and integration programs are ranked higher for retrofit programs than for new construction, but both have moderated over the past decade.
  • DNP remains as the most widely used protocol within North American substations, with strong likelihood that users will migrate from a serial to a LAN-based DNP version over the next two years. Modbus was second in popularity, and Modbus Plus came in third.
  • Plans among North American electric utilities to adopt the IEC 61850 protocol (and architecture) remain at a low level, compared with European utility plans and plans noted in some (not all) other regions. The outlook beyond 2010 points to some increased adoption of IEC 61850, at least among a handful of the 100 largest North American utilities.
  • Utilities are making use of outside service firms to provide training services (72 percent), distribution field device configuration support (52 percent), and engineering drawing support (46 percent).
  • Cyber security issues are being actively addressed by North American substation engineering and operations both in response to industry and federal directives, and in line with prudent utility operational planning guidance. The adoption rate of encrypted protocols, communications port security measures and additional intrusion prevention measures continues to increase.

A total of 22 question groups were included in the survey instrument, accounting for more than 85 individual topical questions.

Additional topics being covered in the series of substation studies include overall substation communications architecture, voltage ranges used to power substation automation equipment, external systems linkages to and from the substation, listings of preferred equipment suppliers, and an assessment of where North America's substations are positioned along a five-phase path to complete automation.

A parallel study is currently being finalized with the international electric power delivery community of utilities.