SCADA Systems for Large-Scale PV Plants

While SCADA systems comprise a relatively small portion of the cost of a large-scale PV power production facility, they are critically important to project success.

To keep everyone’s lights on, grid operators must be able to balance supply and demand across long-distance networks of high-voltage power lines. Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are what allow grid operators to monitor and dispatch power plants—often across vast areas—in response to constantly changing loads. As the solar industry matures and expands its presence on the electric grid, PV power plants are facing increased scrutiny regarding remote monitoring and control. While developers of rooftop projects can activate PV systems and leave them to run on their own, grid operators increasingly tend to require remote monitoring and control capabilities in utility-scale PV applications. Though these requirements are similar to those that apply to conventional generation sources, they may take solar industry veterans by surprise.

In this article, we provide a high-level overview of the North American utility grid and discuss how reliability coordinators and balancing authorities work together to maintain power quality and grid reliability. We briefly look at California to better understand some of the challenges grid operators face when greening the grid. We then take a PV plant–level look at SCADA systems and conclude by sharing best practices for the successful implementation of SCADA systems in large-scale PV plants.

SCADA is deceptively simple on the surface and devilishly complex in the details. Trade-offs that seem small in early utility negotiations can present very large issues for the project team in the field during construction and commissioning. Correctly establishing SCADA implementation requirements as early as possible can ensure project completion on schedule and under budget. Leaving things until the last minute nearly always guarantees delays and gaps in the command and control network. In this arena, it is wise to involve experts sooner rather than later, as the cost of their input will more than pay for itself over the operating asset’s life.

Balancing the Large Machine

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) is responsible for maintaining the security and reliability of the bulk power system in North America. Its area of responsibility extends from the northern portion of Baja California, Mexico, across the continental US and Canada. There are four independently operating power grids, shown in Figure 1, within NERC’s purview: the Eastern Interconnection, the Texas Interconnection, the Quebec Interconnection and the Western Interconnection.

Within these large interconnections, reliability coordinators and balancing authorities are responsible for the proper operation of the bulk electric system, in much the same way that air traffic controllers ensure quality and reliability for the aviation industry. Reliability coordinators manage a wide-area view, with the aim of ensuring that the interconnection does not operate outside permitted limits, which could lead to instability or outages. Balancing authorities, meanwhile, are responsible for maintaining the real-time electricity balance within specific regions. NERC recognizes nearly 20 reliability coordinators and more than 100 balancing authorities.

According to a July 2016 blog post (see Resources) on the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) website: “Most, but not all, balancing authorities are electric utilities that have taken on the balancing responsibilities for a specific portion of the power system.” To avoid potential conflicts of interest, however, independent third-party entities known as regional transmission operators (RTOs) or independent system operators (ISOs) operate the bulk electric system in important regions of North America, as shown in Figure 2. These regions are responsible for much of the economic activity in North America, and the RTOs and ISOs ensure fair and transparent access to market transactions and the transmission network. The EIA blog post clarifies as follows: “All of the [RTOs and ISOs] also function as balancing authorities. ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] is unique in that the balancing authority, [the] interconnection and the regional transmission organization are all the same entity and physical system.”

As described by the authors of the NERC technical document “Balancing and Frequency Control” (see Resources): “Each interconnection is actually a large machine, as every generator within the island is pulling in tandem with others to supply electricity to all customers.” If the output of these generators does not match customer demand, speed of rotation and frequency within the interconnection changes. The authors explain: “If the total interconnection generation exceeds customer demand, frequency increases beyond the target value, typically 60 Hz, until energy balance is achieved. Conversely, if there is a temporary generation deficiency, frequency declines until balance is again restored at a point below the scheduled frequency.” While the scheduled 60 Hz frequency target allows for some variation, the acceptable range is quite small, on the order of ±0.02 Hz.

For grid operators, frequency is the fundamental measure of power system health. An imbalance between load and generation causes frequency to vary, as do grid congestion or equipment faults. Because grid reliability is critically important, and the power system, interconnections and balancing areas are so large, multiple levels of balancing and frequency control govern the system. The primary control level, for example, includes governors on generators and load-interruption capabilities, which can adjust frequency within seconds and stabilize the power grid in the event of a disturbance. Meanwhile, the secondary control level allows grid operators to maintain the generation-to-load balance over a period of minutes.

According to the NERC technical report, the most common secondary control method is automatic generation control, which monitors and adjusts the power output of multiple generators at different power plants. Grid operators’ control centers choreograph these secondary balancing and frequency control activities, dispatching generators as needed to maintain the load-generation balance. A SCADA network, such as the one shown in Figure 3, allows for centralized data monitoring along with remote control of dispersed power-generation assets. SCADA systems not only provide grid operators with real-time insight into individual plant status and performance, but also allow them to dispatch resources as needed to support grid stability.


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