Making the grid smarter

The goal of SDG 13 is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Relying on renewable energies wherever possible helps to reduce CO2 emissions, which goes some way towards achieving this objective.

Engineers at wind farm

The IEC 61850 Standards are a foundational series of publications which pave the way for the use of a variety of digital technologies relating to smart energy. They deal with issues such as the integration of renewable energies and distributed energy resources (DERs) within the electrical network.

Laurent Guise leads one of the key working groups inside IEC Technical Committee (TC) 57, which prepares IEC 61850 Standards for distribution automation and DERs such as solar panels, storage systems and microgrids. It also supports the smart charging of electric vehicles (EVs) through joint work with IEC TC 69, which develops standards for electrical power and energy transfer systems for EVs. Guise is also responsible for the digitalization of the IEC 61850 series.

He is equally an active member of the Systems Committee for Smart Energy (SyC Smart Energy) which coordinates the work of several TCs working to publish standards relating to the digitalization, automating and modernization of the grid, including grid edge devices and systems. He heads the working group which updates the smart energy roadmap.

e-tech caught up with him following the release of the full IEC 61850 series of standards in February.

The IEC 61850 publications are often described as core standards for the smart grid. Why?

They are strategic standards used for the rational management of electricity in the grid. Managing electricity in this new age of energy is increasingly complex. Distributed energy resources are everywhere: it can be a solar panel on the roof of a building but it can also be an electric vehicle plugging into the electricity mains or even a fridge, which can be viewed as a controllable load. One of the problems is that electrical energy is difficult to store. To avoid any electricity shortage, a balance must therefore be established between usage and production. It was easy back in the days when big centralized power stations controlled everything. This becomes more of a challenge when there are thousands of small producers of electrical energy. All these producers are difficult to control and some of the renewable energy sources, like the sun or wind, are fluctuating. These recent challenges require a new approach from the IEC. We especially need to promote a more digital focus amongst the various players and stakeholders.

What is this new approach?

IEC is breaking down siloes between different TCs. The SyC Smart Energy, which I am a founding member of, is working to coordinate the work of various TCs involved in modernizing the electricity grid. IEC TC 57 is cooperating with several other TCs even if there is still room for improvement. We have been liaising with IEC TC 69 on a standard for EV charging, for instance. Grid experts need to share their knowledge to better understand in which conditions EVs might have to limit their consumption of electricity, or even produce electricity from the battery to the grid in order to ensure a continuous supply in the network. To help the community of users of the IEC 61850 series, all the way down the supply chain, we have introduced machine-readable standards and innovative ways of working, such as the ability for various stakeholders to use draft standards during the drafting process, together with code components and machine-readable files, free of charge, typically for research projects. This procedure has been agreed with the IEC sales department. As we do that, we find that we need to align our ontology with IEC TC 3 which prepares standards on the representations of technical information and IEC TC 1, which plays an essential role maintaining the International Electrotechnical Vocabulary.

We have a shared approach with IEC TC 8 to widen the understanding of DERs, more specifically relating to microgrids. DERs are not only sources of energy, which is how they were initially perceived. They are also controllable consumers of energy. The message we are trying to convey is that you can balance the grid either by increasing production or by reducing consumption. Both go hand in hand and are part of the same equation.

What are the cyber security issues?

DERs can make the grid vulnerable. They are points of entry and the multiplicity of these points of entry can be a problem if we do not implement cyber security procedures and technologies. The idea is to get each DER to implement its own security system. We have come to realize that DERs can contribute to balancing the grid in a much more active way than we initially thought and that many aspects can be achieved, thanks to power electronics.

The IEC 61850 Standards are machine-readable, as you mentioned. What are the challenges for the experts developing such standards?

The main users of the IEC 61850 Standards are machines and not people. Machines hate ambiguity even more than humans. That means that there is huge focus on semantics. We have produced a dictionary for machines and we released it in a machine-readable format. A great part of our work is to create digital models of all the different parts of the electrical network and its users, seen from a grid perspective. In effect, we are working with digital twins. In order to avoid ambiguity and to ensure the highest level of interoperability, we have made light code components available as a free download for market stakeholders involved in the supply chain These are posted on the IEC website on the “TC 57 supporting documents” area, attached to specific licensing conditions.

What are your more recent undertakings?

We are working on a second edition of IEC 61850-7-420, which includes a standardized function model for grid codes. Grid codes are technical specifications which define the parameters any DER connected to the grid must follow to ensure safe and proper functioning of the electric system. Grid codes are often specified in national regulatory requirements which impose specific energy behaviours in case of unexpected grid situations. The idea is to prevent a shortage from getting worse because of inappropriate but controllable actions – such as EVs plugging in the grid to recharge, for instance. This new edition also supports the aggregation of DERs, physically or virtually. We are equally starting to extend the IEC 61850 Standards to support microgrids. We are working on a technical report, TR 61850-90-23, in continuation of the work of TC 8/SC 8B. It is a direct follow-up to the IEC 61850-7-420 document on the integration of DERs into the grid. One of the things to understand when standardizing microgrid-related communication requirements, is that a microgrid is a DER, which can isolate from the network, and still operate.


We are also anticipating the increased integration of different energy carriers – like electricity, heat or gas – for usage in electrical appliances, heating, mobility and industry. This is called energy sector coupling. We want to optimize all these energy resources. IEC TC 57 is now looking at how thermal energy-based DERs or possibly gas-based DERs could efficiently contribute to the management of the electrical grid.