Operating Industrial Electrical Networks Remotely

14 April, 2020 | Blog

Pierre Girard

Pierre Girard, P.Eng.

Practice Leader, Electrical and CAD

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Raphael Beaulieu

Raphaël Beaulieu, P.Eng

Electrical Engineer, Digital power systems

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Marc-André Perron

Marc-André Perron, P.Eng.

Electrical Engineer, Digital power systems

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The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted a major issue for industrial companies: operating their electrical network remotely is no longer an option, but a necessity. Indeed, these companies must ensure the continuity of their operations at all times, even when access restrictions are imposed or the availability of workers is reduced.

Today, all companies face the scarcity of specialized technical labour and the need to rely on cutting-edge expertise, more specifically during crises such as COVID-19. However, not having the means required to operate electrical networks remotely jeopardizes the sustainability of facilities owned by many companies and their ability to produce and deliver under any circumstances.

To meet these challenges, investments must be properly planned to quickly and successfully implement systems required to efficiently and safely operate your electrical network remotely.

A bit of history

Most existing industrial electrical networks can only be partially operated remotely, if at all. There is a wide range of technologies present in industrial companies, ranging from analog to the latest generation of digital technology. This combination can sometimes restrict remote electrical network operation, as some technologies do not support critical and essential information transfer for proper diagnosis.

This is a result of the place the electrical network occupies in most industrial companies, namely that it is considered to be a complementary service to the plant’s production infrastructure. As such, it is very rare that a major project is dedicated to the upgrade of the electrical network. In most cases, it is necessary to wait for a process optimization or production capacity increase project in order to get the budgets necessary to upgrade the electrical network, often one area at a time, with little or no overall vision.

The other trigger that can lead to an upgrade of the electrical infrastructure is when a failure occurs. Of course, this type of event does not involve optimal decision-making.

In short, industrial companies must kick into high gear to upgrade their electrical networks and turn their backs on past strategies in order to deal with both crises, COVID-19, and the shortage of experienced workers.

The road ahead

Industrial companies must implement innovative strategies based on open industry standards (such as the IEC 61850 standard) to ensure they have modern and sustainable technologies in place that allow them to guarantee operational continuity with the fewest people on site. Operations will then be able to be supported remotely by qualified resources. These technologies, some mature and others emerging, will provide the team with the information necessary to verify and operate the electrical network while reducing the need for onsite presence and ensuring worker health and safety.

Technologies to implement

  • Efficient, robust and secure communication infrastructures
  • Control, measurement and protection digitalization of all electrical distribution equipment
  • Addition of intelligent electronic devices to increase facility autonomy and reliability
  • Addition of a data acquisition and analysis system to implement predictive maintenance of critical assets
  • Addition of automation systems to ensure high resilience of the electrical network while accelerating the diagnosis of causes in case of a disruptive event.
  • Remote testing and verification of status, interlock and control paths.
  • Replication of the electrical network control centre in a virtual environment to operate remotely with little or no onsite presence:
    • This virtual environment must allow for collaboration between the electrical network operation managers and their teams of external collaborators—consultants, manufacturers, etc.
    • The virtual environment can also be enriched by wearing virtual or augmented reality glasses (also possible with and tablets) to allow everyone to work together more efficiently. Thanks to this equipment, remote team members can see the same thing as if they were on site and thus provide more efficient assistance.

Implementing these technologies makes it possible to remotely operate electrical network infrastructures while increasing information quality, diagnosis accuracy and the availability of high-level expertise while lowering risks.

The resulting rapid response to events significantly reduces financial losses caused by untimely production shutdowns. The required investments can thus be recuperated quickly.

Conclusion

Although electrical networks in industrial complexes are often classified as ancillary to the process facilities, one must remember that no company can operate without a reliable electrical network. To meet current and future challenges during crises or labour shortages, infrastructures must be set up in such a way that a team of plant employees and partners can operate these electrical networks remotely at all times.

This content is for general information purposes only. All rights reserved ©BBA

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