Four Business-Critical Applications to Protect at Energy Company Business Edges

Energy company reduces MTTR at substations from weeks to minutes with NETSCOUT.

Business Critical Applications to Protect at Energy Company Business Edges

In the U.S., the electric grid is made up of a series of 6,400 power plants, thousands of transformers, 5,500 substations, and more than 470,000 miles of wires operated by 3,000 power companies. Although Asia and Europe power plants and substation numbers are significant as well, the use of alternative power sources, such as wind, solar, and nuclear, is more prevalent in those areas.

Substation Functions and Threats

Conventional substations in electric utilities have either one or more transformers and are high-voltage electric systems. Typically unmanned, the primary function of these substations includes switching generators, equipment, and circuits in and out of the grid. They also measure electricity and switch or regulate voltage levels.

Substations range in size from small with one transformer and a few switches, perhaps located in a rural area with a small number of dependent customers, to much larger substations with multiple transformers and many switches servicing many customers. Natural disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes that damage a substation will cause power to go out, affecting perhaps hundreds or thousands of households and businesses.

However, not all substation outages are due to Mother Nature. In late 2022, two substations in the U.S. were severely damaged when someone shot into them, causing a power outage to 45,000 customers. Vandalism at three substations in Washington state in December 2022 left 14,000 customers without power. In fact, between January and August of 2022 alone, there were more than 100 incidents of people vandalizing and attacking substations in the U.S. This was sadly a continuation of an increasing trend over the previous five years: 2021 had 99 events for the entire year, and there were 97 in 2020. Suspicious activity and cyber events are part of these statistics as well.

Theft of copper wire at substations is another common problem that often results in lost service to customers and costly repairs for power companies. A copper wire theft from one substation in Kansas, for example, left the company with a $150,000 expense.

Protecting Four Critical Networked Services at Substations

Distribution substations are specifically characterized by a few things: They are mostly unmanned; they are often in rural areas, possibly as many as 300 miles from the nearest power station; and they provide critical distribution of power to local residential and commercial customers.

Networked application services to substations maintain essential communications for:

  • Operating power distribution and measuring electricity, which includes business-critical operations technology (OT) applications such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and Distributed Network Protocol 3 (DNP3)
  • Providing voice communications when a crew is on-site for maintenance and other activities via Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services and call signaling protocols such as Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)
  • Validating bar code/card reader applications for authorizing employees and crews to enter the substation
  • Recording and transmitting digital video for perimeter surveillance cameras as part of the power company’s theft protection strategy

The combination of natural disasters and human threats to the operation of substations has increased the focus on protecting network and application performance and availability for power company substations.

Risks When Networked Services Are Unavailable

For the services listed above, the risks can be significant if they are performing poorly or become unavailable.

SCADA and DNP3 slowdowns and outages have the greatest impact when they disrupt power to customers.

Issues that impact digital video may affect the quality of the images in the video, or cause complete outages, putting physical security protection and eventual prosecution at risk.

Problems with voice communications services and/or badge reader applications for authorizing employee entrance to the facility may be difficult to detect until an employee attempts to use them. Unfortunately, this means employees may have driven a hundred miles to the site and be unable to perform the work they were sent there to do because they can’t gain access to the substation or can’t complete a quality phone call.

Varying degrees of poor customer service, unnecessary costs, potentially reduced revenue, poor employee productivity, and even regulatory compliance and reputational damage are all concerns and potential outcomes from network problems and outages.

Monitoring of application performance and user experience analysis can provide the details necessary for power companies to gain early warnings of emerging problems with their business-critical applications, even when employees are not at the substations. This includes troubleshooting details necessary to pinpoint the root cause of the problems for swift remediation.

Learn more about how one energy company reduced its mean time to repair (MTTR) from weeks to minutes by using NETSCOUT solutions at its substations to monitor and protect the availability and performance of its operational technology applications.