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Thinking

Smart substation design: How utilities can benefit

3D substation image

Mark Hibbert, Technical Director for Energy at Aurecon, says that smart substation design offers utilities major benefits by linking design efficiency and long term asset management.


Analogue and digital protection relay technology has been with us now for over 40 years. These devices brought with them significant improvements in protection capability due to improved functionality and flexibility.

Unfortunately it wasn’t until around 15 years ago that engineers began to realise that these newer relay technologies had a life expectancy of around 20 years, not 40 like the electromechanical relays they replaced. This shorter life expectancy in itself is not an issue, as the benefits of better protection are worth much more than the cost of two relays during the typical lifecycle of substation primary plant.

The replacement of protection relays used to take care of itself, as they were usually upgraded at the same time the primary plant was replaced, and there was no need to keep track of the protection equipment separately for asset management purposes. However utility engineers are now faced with the problem of identifying and replacing all their analogue and digital relays in a separate cycle.

Building Information Modelling

While the problem resulting from the non-existence of separate asset management databases for primary and secondary plant was not anticipated when the deployment of these devices started, the same problem can be avoided in the future. It is not necessary to specifically develop asset management strategies for every item in a substation that may or may not one day become a problem on its own. All that is required is the adoption of leading edge intelligent design software that effectively mirrors the information interchange capability that is today commonly referred to as BIM, or Building Information Modelling. BIM can be considered to be a collaborative, multi-party process applying digital technologies toward efficient design, construction and operation of assets. In some countries it is now a mandated requirement for the design of any new buildings, and facilitates the transfer of vital asset information to the new building owner.

In the same way as BIM progressed in the building design software world, we now have access to smart substation design software. These products, which like the building design counterparts provide a 3D design capability, now also offer a connectivity functionality and database file structure that enables information interchange with asset management software products and GIS based data management systems. They also offer the ability to manage substation assets from concept to decommissioning. The design model is handed over to the constructor, who enters as-built plant details, and in the case of protection relays, the commissioning engineer will enter test results and protection settings against the relay serial number and location. This is then handed to the asset owner, and effectively entails a complete set of information, including metadata, describing the substation assets in full.

 3D view of foundations

Above: 3D view of foundations

Imagine the delight of a utility asset manager who identifies a need to replace a particular brand of RTU in a substation control systems, between a range of serial numbers. This may come about due to the manufacturer identifying a defect and releasing a new issue of firmware, for example. A database query quickly produces a list of substations, and the locations in the substation (i.e. which protection panel), where these RTUs have been identified. Their replacement is scheduled, and outage preparations are commenced with very little effort. This is a far cry from the position many utilities faced, when the realisation dawned that they would need to identify and schedule the replacement of thousands of relay assets that were older than 20 to 25 years. And yet this is within our grasp today, simply by embracing the new design software that is available from a number of providers.

Smart substation design software is often marketed by showing how “visual” a 3D design can be, and how simple and efficient it is to develop or modify a design. However, be warned, not all “fancy” design packages have the full functionality allowing the above mentioned benefits to be gained as connectivity and information interchange capabilities vary across software products. The better packages also require some upskilling of design teams, which can be a point of resistance from both sides of the management table, as people can be reluctant to change. Designers may be resistant to change because they may have to learn new skills and grapple with more complex concepts than they are used to, (eg database structures), and managers may resist the adoption of new packages because they will have to justify the cost of the training overhead. However, in practice we have experienced the development of a stronger bond between the engineer and the designer, and this has aided collaboration and interaction across different skill levels.

Aurecon's Experience

At Aurecon our experience is that the benefits realised from tackling this change head-on are significant. Design efficiency can be increased considerably, and we have seen a reduction in design hours to 70% of what was previously required, and more in some cases. This reduction in design time actually comes hand in hand with improvements in quality and the safety aspects associated with the engineering design, due to the integrated intelligence in the software. We also see significant benefits in the reduction of rework when design changes are inevitably required.

 3D view of a transformer

Above: 3D view of a transformer

Very few designs progress from inception to handover without some changes being required. Occasionally it is a simple change of plant item, because for example, a circuit breaker contract was renewed, and a different provider is successful. Sometimes it is more complex and a bay needs to be added, and due to line turn-out constraints a bay that has already been designed needs to be moved. With old design software this would entail many hours of costly redrafting. With modern, intelligent 3D design packages only the master model needs to be amended, this can be achieved in relatively short timeframes, and all design drawings are simply automatically regenerated. In addition, multicore cable lengths, and other related changes are made automatically due to the connectivity and location properties inherent in the design package, which allows for route lengths to be measured with a very high level of accuracy.

These significant improvements enable Aurecon to offer our clients a more competitively priced design service that not only improves the design function, but also future proofs the client’s systems from costly asset management item identification exercises, due to the full functionality provided in our suite of intelligent design software packages. Aurecon now has several years of experience using Bentley Substations 3D design package for primary plant, and Promis.e software for secondary systems. As a market leader in power transmission and distribution consultancy services, our track record of success in efficient, smart substation design provides future proof asset management capability for our clients. This has firmly placed us facing the future of BIM.

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