Top 3 Global IEC 61850 Implementation Priorities

IEC 61850 Blog

During research for this year’s IEC 61850 Global conference, exhibition and networking forum, we spoke to over 30 smart grid utilities from around the world to find out about the latest challenges and developments in the sector – specifically in terms of IEC 61850 implementation.

Here are 3 key focus areas for global utilities in relation to their IEC 61850 implementations:

Top-Down Design

Almost every utility we contacted spoke about ongoing efforts to streamline their IEC 61850 engineering process using the top-down design approach.   

Where the bottom-up approach commences system integration with lower level components, slowly iterating into a complex system, the top-down approach tackles the big picture from the outset, aiming to design an entire system that meets tight functional, performance and layout requirements while capitalizing on efficiency savings from repeatable subsystems.          

This approach delivers a plethora of benefits; the more methodical approach leads to fewer design iterations and having a clear picture of the final outcome early in the process allows designs to be interrogated more rigorously and issues ironed-out before they arise. Most importantly however, the top-down design approach promotes the re-use of system and sub-system designs and once properly instituted, supports a standardized engineering process that primarily involves the mixing and matching of pre-established templates.

However, it’s not without reason that the bottom-up approach has been the favoured method until now. The top-down design front-loads complexity and needs to be properly aligned with existing business processes to deliver maximum benefits. This makes it a daunting task for utilities, who are therefore eager compare notes and hear best-practises and lessons-learnt from successful implementations.


IEC 61850 represents a move away from proprietary protocols to a universal standard, which brings a host of benefits but also a significantly heightened cybersecurity risk. As 61850 is increasingly adopted into business-as-usual, managing the associated cybersecurity risk necessarily becomes a bigger priority.

The IEC have taken this issue into their own hands with the ongoing development of the IEC 62351 standard by TC57 WG15. This aims to provide holistic guidelines to manage cybersecurity risks associated with communication protocols, including 61850. The standard advises a variety of approaches to comprehensively safeguard IEC 61850 systems, including encryption and role-based access control as well as established IT security technology such as VPNs and firewalls.

As both IEC 61850 and 62351 continue to evolve, utilities are keen to stay on top of developments and ensure their systems are secure against the latest threats. As well as work by WG 15 to augment the standard with sections focusing on key management, security architectures and XML file security, there are also a range of vendor solutions, such as intrusion detection and deep-packet inspection systems, that aim to improve cybersecurity of OT systems.

It is clear then, that the best cybersecurity strategy is one that is up-to-date and that provides comprehensive coverage against all kinds of threat vectors. Utilities must therefore find out about the latest developments from industry leaders and ensure that they aren’t leaving themselves open to attacks.

Process Bus

More and more utilities are leveraging the IEC 61850 process bus in order to achieve truly digital substation designs. However, this brings with it a raft of new implementation and interoperability challenges. Firstly, the digitization of mission-critical messages and measurements means that accurate time synchronization and effective redundancy are crucial to the reliability of the system. This introduces complex design choices, as a variety of protocols exist to address these issues and utilities must decide on the best combination of solutions for their requirements.

Secondly, the introduction of digitized sampled measurement values renders conventional instrument transformers, relying on analogues instrumentation methods, not fit-for-purpose in a process bus environment. While merging units can facilitate the real-time conversion of analogue measurements, a new breed of measurement device, known as non-conventional or low-power instrument transformers, are expected to be the long-term solution. This technology is relatively new to utilities, however, who have a lot of questions regarding their performance, accuracy and ability to integrate effectively with other systems. To develop a successful strategy for their implementation, utilities want to hear honest feedback from real trials in a grid environment and better understand the timelines for introduction into business-as-usual.


Despite being more than 15 years old, developments to the IEC 61850 standard are continuing to open up new possibilities and introduce new implementation challenges. The three topics covered in this article were the most spoken about during our research this year, but far from the only ones. This year’s IEC 61850 Global conference, exhibition and networking forum is therefore a must-attend for anyone focused on these issues, and represents the only chance for the entire IEC 61850 community to come onto one page, address these numerous challenges and forge a path to vendor-independent interchangeability. With presentations from world-class utilities who are leading the way on IEC 61850 and a range of opportunities to have impactful discussions with like-minded individuals, this is the smart grid technical event of the year.

Don’t miss your chance to be a part of the conversation, visit to find out more!