Close control

The role of SCADA systems is becoming more widely recognised. Utilities Middle East reports on the technology's importance in ensuring an efficient grid.
Close control
SCADA systems can improve grid efficiency.
By Utilities Middle East Staff Writer
Sun 04 Apr 2010 04:00 AM

The role of SCADA systems is becoming more widely recognised. Utilities Middle East reports on the technology's importance in ensuring an efficient grid.

As real time monitoring and control of utility networks generates increasing quantities of data, the ability to process it efficiently to ensure optimum performance has become paramount. Many industrial and infrastructure-scale enterprises depend on equipment located at multiple sites dispersed over a large geographical area, which produces vast quantities of information.

Of these, a significant proportion of large infrastructure and industrial-scale ventures use supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. According to Newton Evans, the power utility industry uses SCADA at more than 50% of their installations. Closer to home, a cursory glance at the DEWA tender board will reveal a number of tenders have recently been issued for upgrades to existing SCADA systems for substations within the emirate.

According to the ARC Advisory Group, it estimates that global shipments of SCADA for the electrical power industry touched $1.3 billion in 2008 and could expand to $2 billion by 2010. For Oil & Gas, the figure could reach $1.3 billion by 2012.

In 2009, ABB won an order worth $63 million from the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC), Saudi Arabia's national power transmission utility, to upgrade 15 substations in the Kingdom.

The substations are spread over an area of approximately 1,000 kilometres and cover a range of voltage levels from 13.8 kV to 230 kV. The project is scheduled for completion in 2011.

ABB will provide design, engineering, supply, installation, testing and commissioning. SCADA systems will also be supplied to enable better power monitoring and control.

Clearly the role of SCADA systems, and the benefits inherent in such technology are becoming known to a wider market. At a basic level SCADA enables utility automation systems, such as power grid control, water (both desalination and network) and wastewater management to deal with more data in a timely manner, provide secure communication and reduce time-to-market. Something that conventional infrastructure technologies fall short in addressing due to a lack of flexibility and limited support for dealing with large volumes of data and configuration.

SCADA systems also help achieve load balancing and improvement in voltage profiles, facilitate proper handling of loads, enhancing the supply of quality power, aid the identification of faults, early restoration of power, efficient planning and also the design of networks.

"When implemented correctly the SCADA technology offers great advantages," says Lalit Zavar, business development manager, remote automation solutions at Emerson. SCADA is normally used for monitoring field assets which are remote to the plant and to provide this process data at various levels into the Management Information Systems. SCADA can be considered as the binding glue, which puts together various components of the process controls systems together.

While its advantages are well-know, Zavar believes there is still a lack of understanding of the technology, which holds back SCADA from being used more extensively. And just as importantly, improving technology is blurring the boundaries  between  these clearly differing systems.

"Yes there is a distinct lack of awareness of SCADA. Several end users confuse between the requirements of DCS and SCADA; programmable logic controllers (PLC) and remote terminal units (RTUs).  With the advancement in chip and communication technology many of the differences are winding down and there is a possibility of using some of the products as both, however, care should be taken to define the requirements to ensure that the functional requirements are met."

In SCADA systems, RTUs and PLCs perform most on-site control. The RTU or PLC acquires the site data, which includes metre readings, pressure, voltage or other equipment status, then performs local control and transfers the data to the central SCADA system. When comparing a solution for challenging SCADA environments, RTU and PLC-based systems aren't equal.

These concerns are not held by a minority. Speaking at an Energy Telecommunications & Industrial Association (ENTELEC) seminar, Mike Walden, business development manager at Control Systems International - an automation company specialising in upgrading existing SCADA systems - says firms that are looking to replace SCADA systems should be more considered: "As you know, replacing a SCADA system is a big deal...just like everything else about maintaining a process, replacing a SCADA systems can have a significant impact in any number of areas, especially on operations.
The irony is that despite the importance of a SCADA replacement project, most companies don't have all that much experience doing it. Many companies have specific procedures for replacing a SCADA system. Those procedures worked the last time they acquired a SCADA system. But that was a long time ago. Many companies find that the technology has changed since then, the vendors have changed, and the old procurement process is no longer as efficient as it might be."

A number of technology-providers allude to a basic misunderstanding of SCADA. In a white paper, Motorola states that with a wide range of RTU and PLC currently on the market, SCADA system engineers and decision makers face several challenges, most notably which units provide the best functionality, expandability and cost effectiveness for any given SCADA application. Especially as RTUs and PLCs overlap application niches, there can be industry confusion.

This confusion is not wholly problematic. According to Zavar it is the natural evolution of comparable technologies. As greater advances are made, their defined remit naturally overlaps with other products. In essence this will lead to a far more homogenous brand of technology. "As is the case with most of the technologically driven industries, we are seeing an amalgamation of products," he says. "The differences between DCS, SCADA, RTUs, PLC, and similar technologies will fade away as higher capacity memory and communication infrastructure become available. What we will be using in the future is not, therefore, ‘competing technologies' but ‘integrated technologies.'"

This technology advance, said Zayar has significant benefits for the utility sector. "The advancements in device technology and the data communications over various media has now put within our reach the possibility to use and explore our natural resources like oil, gas and water safely and optimally. Technologies like wireless and i-Field or digital fields have a great potential."

Potential yes, but typically new technology brings new obstacles. According to Premchand Kurup, CEO of Paramount a local IT security firm, SCADA's reliance on data delivered remotely means it is an enhanced security risk. "Across the world in recent times, as a result of migration of control networks from obscure to IP based, vulnerabilities in these networks are being exploited increasingly by hackers, terrorists and individuals bent on disruption and destruction.

These systems face threats from computer virus proliferation as well as human error. Many processes control/SCADA issues have impacted critical infrastructures costing millions of dollars, loss of credibility with company stakeholders and risks to the public's safety."

Such advancement can be a double-edged sword, therefore. And Zayar issues a further warning; such rapid improvement in technology will nullify the long-term value of such products. "The main challenge we are facing is the availability of domain specific skilled manpower. From materials view point, technological advances is a boon but on the other side the pace of technology is so high that it leads to a shortened life cycle of the current products making spares and support a big challenge to the sector."

Advocating new systems is all very well. However, the global economic crisis has wreaked havoc on the emirate, with foreign investment and lines of capital drying up completely leading to stalled projects or cancelled entirely. Significant infrastructure projects, which demand huge tracts of project finance in particular has suffered. Consequently doubts have been raised over the efficacy of installing a new SCADA system.

This argument is invalid, according to Zayar who believes that, despite the undeniable impact of a slowdown in projects, SCADA's intrinsic role is not questioned, Moreover, with a need to strive for greater efficiency and cost-effectiveness, the benefits afforded by SCADA are even more relevant.

"The global crisis has definitely impacted the industry as a whole. Only projects which are a ‘must have' are going to be cleared for the drawing board. Due to its application, SCADA requirements fall in this category normally and hence the SCADA market has not been impacted to a great extent. In addition, with the crisis it has become more important that operators explore and maintain their fields optimally, which requires a more in-depth knowledge of how wellheads are producing, which is one of the main functionalities delivered by the SCADA system."

Looking forward it is going to be this integration, Zayar predicts between various vendors that will represent the ongoing challenge for the wider implementation of SCADA technology. Access to qualified and experienced resources, access to a single vendor who can deliver integrated SCADA technology but who can also coordinate between the SCADA vendor and the ‘communications infrastructure vendor' will be key to those users in the region.

The future does not necessarily need to be viewed with trepidation according to those in the industry. There are a number of evolving aspects of SCADA that the industry is watching.

"SCADA can be broken down into three parts - field, communications and the top layer,' said Zayar. There are distinct emerging technologies in each layer of the SCADA systems. From the field side this could be the foundation fieldbus or Wireless HART; from the communications side the use of standard ethernet as the connecting backbone and WiMax; at the IT (top) layer the use of thin client versus thick client, the use of open industry standard protocols like DNP3.0 (device layer) and OPC-UA (Enterprise layer).

 "Some of the Middle East users are experts of SCADA technology where as others are still catching up thus providing a challenging opportunity for the SCADA vendors in the region," Zayar concludes.

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