The small European country of Belgium is being lauded for yet another product in addition to its famous chocolates.
A fleet of giant wind turbines off the nation’s coast is generating power not only for its mainland but also for the United Kingdom, located more than 80 miles across the North Sea.
With a demanding deadline, the ambitious wind integration project by Belgian grid operator Elia went online in early 2019 without a glitch. Consequently, renewable energy generated by offshore wind is benefitting millions of homes and businesses in Belgium and beyond.
“Integrating our offshore wind energy into the European grid has improved the future security of supply of electricity for a wide region,” said Elia Project Manager Rodolphe Hanuise, based in Brussels.
The project came to fruition with the help of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (SEL), whose engineers, technicians, and other employees worked late hours in multiple countries to meet a tight target date.
Because the new integrated grid couldn’t be brought online until SEL implemented a special protection scheme (SPS) to ensure stable delivery of power, “it was definitely a high-pressure deadline,” Hanuise said. “Many people were counting on it.”
During the project kick-off meeting in Belgium, he recalled wondering if SEL could complete the SPS in such a short time, especially with the high quality of technical work that was required.
“It’s hard to believe now, but I actually didn’t think it would be possible,” he said.
Roughly 11.6 million people live in Belgium across a land area of 11,787 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Three official languages are spoken: Dutch, French, and German. In the capital city of Brussels are NATO headquarters and the European Parliament.
Winding river valleys, rolling hills, and verdant forests make up the Belgian countryside. In the urban areas, it’s not unusual to see medieval architecture and canals interspersed with modern cafes, art galleries, and breweries.
Despite its compact size, Belgium is a major exporter of products, from automobiles and computers to fine chocolates and beer, which contributes to its highly developed economy.
Not long ago, the nation faced a headwind. Heavily dependent on nuclear power for more than a half century, the federal government ordered the country’s seven aging reactors to be phased out by 2025. Officials also set a goal of gaining energy independence and lowering carbon emissions by reducing fossil fuel imports and deploying renewable sources.
“It was part of a wider move to shift toward renewable energy across all of the European Union,” said Hanuise of Elia, which owns and operates the Belgian transmission grid and is responsible for importing and exporting electricity with neighboring countries.
How would Belgium ensure clean, reliable energy for its future?
Enter the strong, steady winds blowing off its coast.
Today, 318 wind turbines are anchored off the Belgian coastline, making Belgium the world’s fourth-largest producer of offshore wind power, according to the industry organization WindEurope. Rising as tall as 58 stories above the surface of the North Sea, the turbines are capable of generating 8,000 gigawatt-hours of electricity each year, enough to power 2 million homes.
These powerful fan-like structures harvest the abundant and consistent winds found at sea, enabling the turbines to generate continuous energy. Also, with the turbines operating in a patch stretching 14 to 33 miles from the coast, sea views are unobstructed for Belgians and tourists alike.
These factors, combined with technical advancements significantly reducing the costs of offshore wind power, contribute to the industry’s rising popularity in Europe, said Hanuise.
“Offshore wind is gradually becoming a mainstream form of power here,” he said.
How does energy produced by the wind turbines get miles to land where it’s needed? First, it’s transported through cables buried along the ocean floor to an offshore switchyard platform owned and operated by Elia. From there, it travels through another network of subsea cables to a substation on the Belgian coast.
From there, Elia’s new 380 kV transmission corridor carries the power into Belgium’s mainland. And in a second major role, the corridor facilitates the exchange of up to 1,000 MW of electricity between Belgium and the United Kingdom through a high-voltage direct current (HVdc) link. The joint project by Elia and UK’s National Grid includes a submarine cable that runs 81 miles along the seabed.
But even though the link was finished and tested late last year, engineers would not energize it until the SPS was in place.
“The amount of power capable of being transported through the transmission corridor—both from the offshore windfarms and from the HVdc link—is equivalent of up to three nuclear reactors,” Hanuise explained.
Meaning that if a severe storm were to trigger a fault, power stability could be compromised.
To avoid blackouts, an SPS was needed to detect abnormal conditions along the corridor and quickly respond. Ultimately, Elia selected a company outside Europe to provide it.
“We picked Schweitzer Engineering for two main reasons,” said Hanuise. “They proposed the best solution with very technologically advanced relays. We also took into account that they had done comparable SPS projects in other countries, such as Georgia and Uruguay, with very good results.”
Not only did the SPS project require a perfect alignment of expertise and technology—it demanded haste. Teaming up with Elia, SEL’s Engineering Services division faced a finish date in less than 10 months.
“Normally, a project like this would probably take a year and a half or even longer,” said SEL’s Milind Malichkar, the SPS project’s technical lead. “So a group of us sat in a room, looked at the schedule, and broke it down week by week, day to day. We analyzed each stage to see how we could save time without cutting back on quality, with the goal of employing fast and innovative methods for solution delivery.”
The strict deadline was necessary to protect the Belgian grid from instability once the HVdc link became operational in late January 2019. But it was also needed to avert a possible energy shortfall during Belgium’s coldest time of year. With several nuclear reactors taken offline for maintenance, “it was critical that our country have the additional power-importing capacity in case of a prolonged cold spell,” said Hanuise.
At SEL branches in Spain, Mexico, and the United States, SEL workers strove to complete their SPS tasks on time, on budget, and with high quality. To meet the January 31 deadline, Malichkar and the engineering team spent weeks in Belgium commissioning the SPS.
“A lot was riding on the project,” said Malichkar. “There was a sense of urgency, and we all understood this.”
Working long hours, employees at SEL’s Mexico branch built multiple large panels, each mounted with SEL hardware that included the SEL-451 Protection, Automation, and Bay Control System, the SEL-3555 Real-Time Automation Controller (RTAC), and the SEL-2240 Axion for logic control.
Specialists also installed a device with technology that would set Elia’s protection system apart from others: the SEL-2740S Software-Defined Network Switch. The switch and its supporting software would provide software-defined networking (SDN) to enable secure and robust data exchange between substation networks.
Back in 2016, SEL was the first company to release an SDN solution designed for electric power substations. Three years later, its engineers were applying the solution in a new way for Elia.
“This was the first time we used SDN communications in an SPS project,” said Derek DeWald, SEL project manager. “It required an integration of hardware and software in a way we hadn’t done before.”
The SDN, preprogrammed to meet Elia’s needs, would provide substation-to-substation communications and status monitoring via high-speed GOOSE messaging. The GOOSE protocol is becoming increasingly common as more electric utilities adhere to IEC 61850, the Ethernet-based international standard for communications networks in substations.
As leaves turned to gold and red across Belgium, the panels were finished at SEL’s Mexico branch and then quality-tested. Next, they were shipped to headquarters in Pullman, Washington, for two weeks of rigorous hardware-in-the-loop testing.
“This is where we put all the equipment through simulation scenarios to verify how the SPS would react as if it were in a real field setting,” said Malichkar. For example, real-time digital simulation was used to model the wind farms, the HVdc link, and the transmission corridor so engineers could see how quickly the SPS would respond during different power system continencies.
During testing, the SPS was expected to detect abnormal conditions and initiate corrective action in 40 milliseconds, as required by Elia.
But the outcome couldn't have been better. It took only 20 milliseconds.
“It was faster than what Elia expected—faster than we expected,” said Malichkar. “The testing gave us the proof and the renewed confidence to move the project forward.”
Now certain that the SPS was proven, deployable, and within cost, each fully equipped panel was carefully packaged at SEL’s Solution Delivery Center for air transport to Belgium.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be long before the season’s first snowflakes fell over the high hills of the Belgian Ardennes region. Winter approached—as did the January deadline.
Following installation and further testing in Belgium, the protection system was successfully energized on January 25. When the clock struck midnight on January 31, the HVdc link started commercial operation.
The next day, the international news agency Reuters published a story about the achievement. John Pettigrew, chief executive of the UK’s National Grid, was quoted as saying: “Interconnectors like the HVdc link are the perfect tool to move renewable energy from where it is produced to where it is needed most.”
Today, when someone flips on a light switch in Brugge, Belgium, or in Kent, England, the electricity powering the bulb was probably channeled through Elia’s transmission corridor. With the SPS in place, Elia is able to track signs of disturbances and respond rapidly before a problem escalates into a power failure.
Multiple SEL devices are working together to keep the power system stable and secure, said SEL’s DeWald.
“We helped to integrate and stabilize delivery of a new source of renewable power that’s been brought into the European grid,” he said. “That’s something we’re very proud of.”
When two additional wind farms go online by 2020, offshore wind energy will make up more than 10 percent of the total Belgian energy mix, said Hanuise.
“This is only a first step,” he said. “The SPS allowed us to dream bigger by opening the path to even more green energy integration in the future.” With the addition of more turbines by 2024, the wind farms will be capable of generating 14 terawatt-hours each year, “enough to power 85 percent of all Belgian households,” he explained.
And the next time a severe storm rolls through, the SPS could mean that end customers—whether a chocolatier, car manufacturer, or potato farmer—will experience a mere flicker of lights instead of a blackout.