Alcatel-Lucent and Schneider Electric: The Power of One

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Frequent visitors to this blog site undoubtedly have read any number of posts talking about infrastructure issues, including advances in the distribution of electricity that are making the smart grid a reality. In this guest post, I’d like to provide a glimpse to another side of the equation that perhaps doesn’t get as much ink here: communications.

Alcatel-Lucent has been partnering with Schneider Electric for several years now, combining our expertise in communications technology with Schneider Electric’s vast experience in infrastructure. In fact, Alcatel-Lucent is a Schneider Electric EcoStruxure Technology Partner and the partnership is bearing fruit in areas such as substation automation. The two companies are now working together on a joint project for RTE, the operator of Europe’s biggest power grid, and its intelligent substation R&D project in France.

A couple of trends are driving the need for more substation automation as well as making it more cost-effective. On the need side, the push to use more renewable energy is forcing utilities to re-evaluate the centralized control and command approach. Originally, utilities built substations for a hierarchical and pretty much unidirectional electricity flow, from the power plant out to the end customer.

Renewable energy is turning that model on its head. Now, we see energy sources such as wind or solar farm installations distributed all over the landscape, often in lightly populated areas. All of these facilities feed power into the grid, and they require substation automation schemes to be adjusted accordingly.

At the same time, utilities are starving for greater interoperability of various intelligent electronic devices (IEDs). As such, they are embracing the international standard for substation communications, IEC 61850. The standard promotes the development of a new generation of substation protection, automation and control systems that results in significant reduction of the overall cost of such systems, while at the same time improves the functionality of different applications.

Communications play a pivotal role in the evolution of the substation automation.  Instead of hard-wired connections between different substation components, increasingly we’re seeing Ethernet-based local-area networks (LAN) connecting devices within the substations. Given these networks all run the Internet Protocol (IP), it’s a simple matter (at least for Alcatel-Lucent) to connect them to a wide-area router or switch to enable remote monitoring and end-to-end control of the grid.

Although we are talking about LAN switches for intra-substation communications, these devices are not off-the-shelf, enterprise-grade devices. To be used in stringent industrial environments such as electrical systems, the switches are not only ruggedized but should support traffic flow with very low latency and the high reliability rigid wiring offers. Last but not least, the switches must comply with the IEC 61850 standard. For inter-substation communications, the LAN switches must also interconnect with IP/MPLS routers. (More on that in our next guest blog post.)

Such an IEC 61850-compliant, Ethernet-based communications network makes it possible to further automate many of the tasks involved in delivering a consistent flow of quality electricity over the grid. Utilities are able to collect much more information from the equipment inside the substations, much of which is made by Schneider Electric. With an improved exchange of information, utilities are better able to identify problems and fix them before they result in a customer outage. Similarly, they can now more easily monitor the flow of electricity into the grid from renewable sources – and compensate when those sources produce less energy than what’s required.

It’s been great to see Alcatel-Lucent and Schneider Electric come together to help RTE with its intelligent substation project – a tangible example of the power inherent in the EcoStruxure Technology partnership.

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