Tech Insights

From Digital Twins to IIoT, Substation Innovation Heats Up

November 01, 2023 by Shannon Cuthrell

Substations are using digital twin platforms, machine learning, robotics, and other high-tech tools to increase stability and efficiency.

Substation modernization patents are on the rise, according to GlobalData, as utilities integrate advanced technologies to digitize and streamline their operations and enhance the stability of the power grid. This article follows the substation market, examining digital twins, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, smart analog assets, ground and applied robotics, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) software, and what advances in these technologies mean for the grid’s future. 


A power distribution substation.

A power distribution substation. Image used courtesy of Pexels


This tracks with the rise of digital substations, which replace analog secondary circuits between instrument transformers and protection relays with digital systems. The market follows a growing demand for enhanced communication and safety in power transmission and distribution operations. 


Patent grants for emerging substation technologies.

Patent grants for emerging substation technologies. Image used courtesy of GlobalData


Technology advancements focus on improved safety and remote management through IIoT and communication platforms. Smart devices and automation systems support remotely manageable substation operations. The digital transformation of substations can improve operations and unlock long-term adaptability. 


Digital Twin Technology

Digital twin technologies, designed to produce a virtual representation of physical equipment and processes, continue to improve. Digital twins simulate the operation of substations, microgrids, or transmission and distribution systems to perform maintenance and configuration tasks and other control activities. 

Swedish-Swiss tech giant ABB is innovating an IIoT equipment and configuration method that stores twin data for substation automation systems and other industrial applications. The invention provides improved techniques to configure the data collection logic of IIoT devices paired with primary or secondary devices in substations. Targeting protocol configurations that haven’t been hard-coded into IIoT devices, the goal is to configure and reconfigure data collection for IIoT devices without using field personnel. 

ABB is also working on a method for configuring an intelligent electronic device (IED) from multiple IEDs connected in a substation communication network. 

China-based Jiangsu Zhongke Yunmo is also developing a digital twin-based intelligent substation management system that integrates AI and IIoT devices for system functionality, predictive simulation, and performance enhancements. The digital twin combines AI, connected devices, and homomorphic encryption to supply an intelligent management system that streamlines operation and maintenance at transformer substations.

It also has a predictive analog simulation module with a load energy consumption monitoring system to predict the power consumption range of each line based on historical data. This provides an early warning for peak consumption. 


AI and Drones

AI and machine learning software is another emerging segment targeting the ongoing digital transformation of power systems. Google subsidiary DeepMind and UK Power Networks are partnering to build an AI-based platform with digital maps covering 111,846 miles of electricity cables in the U.K. The image recognition platform could scan thousands of maps and remaster them into a digital form. Battery operators or energy aggregators could use the resources to find sites for new equipment. Maps of electricity substations, overhead lines, and cables help guide excavation operations.  

In 2021, India-based AI firm BLP Industry.AI and Finnish software developer Sharper Shape used drones and other sensor packages for power grid monitoring and maintenance. The project assisted grid managers with managing assets and vegetation and monitoring India’s transmission, distribution lines, and substations.


Substation Automation

In the automation field, Swiss tech giant Hitachi Energy recently created a self-reliant substation featuring an enclosed switchgear and an automated robot that operates maintenance for active circuits, protecting workers’ safety. 


Left: A substation automation system with a separate control and gateway. Right: An IEC 61850 and LON-based system with two workstations, redundant system servers, and a separate gateway.

Left: A substation automation system with a separate control and gateway. Right: An IEC 61850 and LON-based system with two workstations, redundant system servers, and a separate gateway. Image used courtesy of Hitachi Energy 


Hitachi’s existing substation automation system, MicroSCADA X, uses a human-machine interface to bridge access between control rooms and engineers' mobile devices. A map viewer feature lets engineers evaluate real-time data across the power network, complementing other functions such as disturbance analysis and power monitoring. Engineers can use disturbance information to understand process behaviors and optimize selectivity for protection devices. The power monitoring tool oversees IED protection and control, allowing users to optimize equipment based on harmonic distortions and voltage changes. 

MicroSCADA also allows manual and automatic control of disconnectors, breakers, tap changers, and other object categories. 


Industrial Internet of Things and Smart Technologies

Advancements also target communication technologies, wearable inspection systems, sensor detection, and intelligent security monitoring. Hitachi Energy, for example, is developing various IIoT systems for electrical substations, including digital twin software for remote and predictive maintenance processes. 

China-based Hunan Xiangdian is working on a 5G communication system enabling automatic switching for remote backup power at transformer substations. The system features at least two remote backup switching devices connected to 5G wireless routers via fiber optic channels. The standby power supply can be switched on to recover power during outages or when the supply is tripped for any reason.