For over 20 years, the country of Georgia suffered from continuous blackouts; sometimes as many as 14 a year. For many Georgians, blackouts became normal – something they just got used to. But it was a great financial and economic burden for a newly independent country.
Power system designs rely on regulations and protocols, as well as customer requests and other requirements, which guide engineers to create a design that not only fits those constraints, but that is also efficient and reliable.
This is the story of how the creativity and collaboration between two companies resulted in a new beginning and increased opportunities for an entire country.
Blackouts and outages
People understand what a blackout is: the loss of electric power. But there is more to it than not being able to charge a cellphone or watch TV. Food spoils without refrigeration. Production shuts down. Financial services come to a halt. Electric appliances become useless. Toilets, sinks, and showers no longer operate because of a lack of pressure from the water supply. There is no air conditioning and no heating. The availability of modern medical care is compromised.
Blackouts are also tough on the power system equipment. Every time a system experiences a fault or outage, the lifespan of transformers, generators, and other equipment suffers. These are vital pieces of a power system that are incredibly expensive to replace.
It wasn’t always like this in Georgia. Before obtaining independence in the early 1990s, the territory was part of a large, interconnected electric power system in the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so too did the interconnected system.
This fractured system took its toll on Georgia. There were up to 14 partial blackouts and between two and four total blackouts every year. The loss of interconnection led to weak spots and unforeseen consequences because there were no longer alternate sources to compensate for the outage of certain lines.
Georgia’s energy instability inhibited its goal of expanding into European markets. The country’s electricity supply company, GSE, wanted the country to be a hub for clean energy production, and it wanted to export that energy into Europe. It also wanted to have other countries use its transmission lines to pass energy through Georgia. But to achieve those goals, GSE needed to be able to comply with the requirements of European markets.
In August 2011, after one of the worst country-wide blackouts, Georgia’s minister of energy got involved, expressing concern over the severity of the blackouts. The outages compromised national security and the stability of the economy.
Rehabilitating the electrical system
GSE began the critical journey of rehabilitating the country’s power system. It became the power company’s top priority and carried a very clear message: this cannot be allowed to happen again.
GSE hired a firm of consultants to investigate Georgia’s power system operations, behaviour, and responses to various events and contingencies. After recreating the conditions of the August 2011 blackout in a system study, GSE had the main requirements – a 100 ms window of time for their power system to detect a fault, generate a load-shedding decision, and send that decision to the mitigation device which operated the circuit breaker.
Armed with these specifications, GSE contacted electric power protection company, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), and together, the companies embarked on what would become a newfound partnership of trust and collaboration.
In a demanding initial four-month schedule, SEL specified, designed, built, tested, and installed a solution called the emergency control system. The system was based on decentralised, or distributed, control which stabilised the power system enough to prevent country-wide blackouts and contain any power outages to smaller areas. When the emergency control system was put to a live test, it operated in 12 ms – far faster than the initial 100 ms time requirement.
Once the emergency control system was in place, GSE had to find ways to minimise, even further, a power outage during a fault; to add more controls, visibility, intelligence, and functionality.
For GSE, this meant a remedial action scheme (RAS). In contrast to the emergency control system, a RAS system is based on centralised control. This was how GSE moved from emergency control to true power system management.
Commissioning the system
When the solution was commissioned in the summer of 2014, the difference was immediately quantifiable. From the power utility’s National Control Centre, the new RAS controller could evaluate the entire power system, communicate with other devices, monitor voltage levels and power flows, and check for faults every 2 ms. In other words, the RAS system could take an action to save the country from a blackout 500 times a second – and it has, several times a year since installation.
With the RAS system, GSE also got an upgraded communications network, which is paramount to protection-critical infrastructure. Relays do not trip unless they receive an instruction to do so.
The specialised communications network became the heartbeat, the pulse, between the distributed controllers in the substations and the RAS controller at headquarters. The network also carries data and diagnostics. All of the RAS devices run self-tests constantly to communicate the health, behaviour, and performance of the power system and each device within it. Whenever a fault or other event occurs, SEL’s devices automatically generate detailed reports for operators to review. Since the system is synchronised, GSE engineers know exactly what happened and when.
Later in 2014, GSE and SEL began updating ten of the most critical substations in the Georgian power system. Feeder by feeder, they replaced old, electromechanical relays with new digital relays which reduce the likelihood of malfunctions and false trips significantly. All of these devices are now accessible for supervision and control from the National Control Centre, rather than having system operators on site. This transition saves GSE money, increases the utilty’s system functionality and reliability, and facilitates easier device maintenance.
Ultimately, GSE became an authorised transmission system operator, giving it the power to operate and plan for the development of the entire transmission grid in Georgia. The utility is able to transfer energy between Georgia and Turkey because of the new 700 MW, HVDC converter station and the surrounding 500/400 kV lines. The addition of the converter station led to 278-million kWh being transmitted in 2014.
For Georgia, the value of new technology went beyond simply reducing the number of blackouts. GSE, the national electricity utility, is now an ISO 9001:2008-certified company, which means it meets certain international quality standards for continuous improvement and superior performance in all aspects of business.
GSE was also awarded the Best IT Solution for Business in 2014 for the successful implementation of its SCADA and telecommunications systems. Because of these improvements, GSE has been a significant factor in the country’s overall progression in the last decade.
Among other factors, the power system reliability improvements contributed to a rise in the country’s overall Human Development Index (HDI), which is a comparative measure of life expectancy, education, and standard of living. Based on HDI values, countries are separated into either low, medium, high, or very-high human development categories.
According to data from the United Nations and World Bank, the availability of electricity can impact a country’s HDI; generally, the higher a country’s annual per capita electricity consumption, the higher its HDI. Over 15 years ago, Georgia’s HDI was 0,672, ranking Georgia in the medium human development category. Now, that value has risen by more than 12% to 0,754, moving the country into the high human development category.
Reliable electric power from a modern and stable network made the difference.
Contact Rudolf van Heerden, SEL, Tel 012 664-5930, firstname.lastname@example.org