Power grids are undergoing a period of radical change, shifting away from an aging infrastructure designed for one-directional power flow to one better able to integrate dynamic renewable energy resources. 

To address this complex challenge in the way of modernization programs, operators are looking for new solutions for sustainable power generation, answering to soaring demand and supply requirements without forgetting consistent grid stability. 

The transition to virtualized protection and control is a key enabler in the battle to stabilize the electricity grid in the age of renewables, offering new possibilities to optimize the supply of renewable generation and achieve flexibility and scale. 

The energy transition is certainly on. Already, about 30% of the world's electricity comes from renewables, including hydropower, solar and wind. By 2026 this figure is forecast to rise to the equivalent of today’s fossil fuel and nuclear energy capacity combined.

But, while this emerging new energy economy may be critical to our low-carbon future, integrating these new energy sources is having a fundamental impact on the electrical grid. 

Put simply, our aged grid infrastructure was not designed for the renewable energy revolution. It was only designed to deal with a steady, reliable supply of energy under the basic assumption that electricity generation is easily adjustable depending on the amount of electricity consumed. The inherent variability of wind and solar, including potential imbalances in supply and demand and changes in transmission flow patterns, make balancing on the existing grid problematic.

Add to the mix a changing grid profile as electricity needs evolve with rapid electrification driven by electric mobility, HVAC, data centers, and other emerging industries, and it becomes clear that the world needs innovative approaches to balance the grid — and fast. 

Enter virtualization.

Virtualization in electrical distribution

Virtualization — which, in simple terms, means creating a virtual, rather than actual, version of something — can help to stabilize the electrical grid in several ways. 

But, to understand how, we must first look at the typical modern substation. As the power grid needs to evolve, substation technology is also changing. From communication components and operator terminals through to SCADA systems, most substations today have multiple computing devices, both legacy and newer assets, running specific applications and working in isolation. 

This can make maintenance a minefield for the standard operator, tasked with keeping track of an ever-growing list of varied components. In most cases too, because individual devices are usually vendor-specific it can mean any modifications involve a specialist skillset to be outsourced at a cost. This requirement will continue to grow as more functionalities are added. 

Further, more devices mean more space required in a substation, making the task of physically installing and maintaining each asset a challenge in itself. Additional considerations include the expenditure associated with power supply, HVAC, maintenance, and life cycle management.

Through virtualization, it becomes possible to address many of these challenges by consolidating multiple workloads from various pieces of equipment into one single, easy-to-use platform.

As the first major benefit, virtualization drastically reduces the number and type of devices in substations, meaning there are fewer devices to replace, test, commission, and maintain. As there is only one kind of hardware running all the different tasks, it effectively eliminates the need for users to learn the specifics for each device and reduces the amount of knowledge required to maintain the substation. It also enables most key activities to be performed remotely, in real time, anywhere in the world, negating the need for a physical presence. The result is faster, less expensive operations.

But the benefits do not end there. What is equally appealing about virtualization is the ability to aggregate all the data from various devices in the substation into one single location. For the utility provider, the wide-reaching visibility afforded by this approach can empower better decision-making in power quality, renewable integration, asset management, and more. 

Virtualized protection and control 

Inherently, the switch from a conventional approach to a virtual one will not happen overnight. As with all big innovation, it will only be achieved through incremental steps — the first of which will be the shift toward virtualized protection and control. 

As many utility operators know, protection and control is complex. This is seen as growing demand and the increasing penetration of large-scale intermittent sources, such as wind farms and solar panel systems, place new pressures on the need to balance local supply and demand as much as possible, maintain voltage levels within tolerances, and control power quality and reliability at connection points. Given the typical complex setup, which can entail any number of varying protection and control, measurement and communication devices, the resulting system can be complex to maintain.

This is where virtualization comes in. By virtualizing protection and control functions, it becomes possible to upgrade, maintain, and operate the protection and control arrangement in real time with ease. Working via one central platform also makes it easier to analyze and act upon the data obtained from the assets, individually and collectively, to identify and address any issues ahead of time. Other benefits include reduced hardware footprint, simplified life cycle management, and flexibility.

An enabler for change 

As renewable integration increases and power grids continue to evolve, the virtualization of physical assets will prove a critical tool in empowering utility operators with the advanced capabilities and intelligence needed to streamline operations, optimize processes, and prepare for changes in grid behavior ahead of time. Not only will this inevitable shift make for a more stable grid but also have a positive impact on the environment. Clearly then, the era of virtual protection and control has arrived.