Process controls and electrical system controls are notorious for not communicating well with each other.
But for industries that are sensitive to power – uch as oil and gas production, chemicals, mining, metal and pulp processing, and power generation – the reasons to integrate these systems are well established: to reduce energy costs and operating expenses, minimize downtime, increase operator effectiveness and simplify maintenance strategies.
There have been plenty of plant-level efforts to integrate process controls with electrical systems – based on hard-wiring signals between the electrical equipment and the process control system, and by building complex software gateways.
But these efforts are expensive, hard to maintain, nearly impossible to upgrade and tend not to work as well as envisioned.
The upshot is that, even though process controls and electrical systems need to work together, perfectly reasonable people throw up their hands at the thought of it actually happening.
Now that is changing, thanks to an unlikely and unglamorous intermediary: IEC 61850 – the international standard for automating substations.
The original goal of IEC 61850 (published in 2004) is to make it easier and less expensive to design, build, maintain and update substations. But open standards like this often come to have far broader reach than expected. Innovators figure out how to exploit them to do jobs well beyond their original scope.
And so it is with IEC 61850. It’s not a big leap to see how a standard designed to seamlessly integrate devices and data within the electrical system can be used to integrate the electrical and process control systems – so long as the process control platform is also built to work easily with IEC 61850.
That’s part of what makes ABB’s own System 800xA noteworthy: it’s the first process control system on the market to support IEC 61850 – meaning that it’s not just about process integration, but about whole-plant integration.
Thanks to the way IEC 61850 is written, it’s proving transformational. First, it’s a truly global standard, common for both IEC and ANSI.
Second, it provides a flexible open architecture for both medium- and high-voltage devices.
Third, it’s based on Ethernet communications. So it offers fast, reliable, and secure communications and interoperability among electrical devices – with flexibility to be adapted as new communication technologies arise.
All of this is why the most common description of the standard may be that it’s future-proof. And why people who think about broader integration issues than substation communication are starting to look at IEC 6850 as the standard for communication between any type of IED (intelligent electrical device).
Enough facilities have already used it to integrate electrical and process control systems that the innovation can no longer be considered experimental.
The results? Improved uptime; lower life cycle costs; and increased energy efficiency through better visibility into power consumption, integrated drives and faster plant startups. Problem resolution improves with a centralized plant maintenance system, and plant upsets can be addressed more quickly with a centralized sequence of events list.
A smaller system footprint can reduce spare part inventories, lower training time for users, and make for a simpler overall system design with fewer wires, yet more connectivity.
It remains to be seen where else IEC 61850 may be applied, but for large consumers of electricity, this boring technology standard starts to look pretty exciting.
Does your company utilize IEC 61850?