The Lifeblood of the Smart Grid
In an ecosystem, interdependent organisms function together in the same habitat to sustain life, much like the interdependent parts of a modern utility system work together to generate and distribute power. As the utility ecosystem evolves, adapting to new found technologies, it’s becoming increasingly more dependent upon telecommunications infrastructure and information technology to advance and thrive, while becoming more efficient and reliable in the process.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) recent $4.5 billion investment for Smart Grid programs is helping utility clients take a stronger look at how they can evolve their organizations and address a myriad of challenges ranging from energy conservation, distributed energy resources, reliability, and increasing consumer demand, among others.
Telecommunications is an essential component that connects the entire utility operation, and establishing an integrated communications backbone is one of the key steps towards the realization of the Smart Grid. However, telecommunications networks must be planned, managed, and carefully designed to meet the mission-critical needs of the Smart Grid. Not all telecommunications networks are created equal. In an ever-changing environment, ripe for technology updates and system overhauls, selecting the right combination of network technologies is critical to maximizing the value from a utility’s Smart Grid investment.
Interoperability is fundamental to designing a flexible network system. Creating a consistent and seamless network architecture throughout the utility operation ensures various equipment and systems are compatible and can exchange data with one another. Now more than ever, as utilities begin to strategize their Smart Grid initiatives, is the ideal time to assess their telecommunication networks and develop a Telecommunications Master Plan.
A Smart Start to Telecommunication Master Planning
Considering the interests of all utility stakeholders, including professionals, regulators, and, ultimately the customer, is vital to establishing a clear vision for becoming a “smart utility”. Applying smart technology has varying benefits for different parts of the organization ranging from integrating distributed renewable generation, to greater customer empowerment, to creating a self-healing network that anticipates, detects, and responds to problems. To maximize time and resources, utility managers need to prioritize goals and objectives to create a clear path to a more cost-effective operation.
Gathering all stakeholders from every level of the organization is also important to developing the most effective communications strategy. Utility telecommunications and IT departments are typically separated from the generation, transmission and distribution departments, but as they become more and more involved in the Smart Grid equation, all stakeholder organizations need to be accounted for and heard from at the start of a utility’s evaluation.
As utility managers begin working on their Smart Grid initiatives, they are discovering gaps between their current telecommunications infrastructure capabilities and what is needed in order to realize their Smart Grid vision.
Today, utilities are discovering a gap between their existing telecommunications infrastructure and where it needs to be to realize its Smart Grid vision. Identifying the gap and knowing how to fill it is a crucial step in a telecommunications master plan. In addition to performing an assessment of the current network’s capabilities, stakeholders provide valuable input into understanding current operational requirements and what areas of the businesses can be automated to be more effective and reduce costs. Gaining a clear picture of this communications gap will help create a more robust telecommunications infrastructure to support Smart Grid applications.
In the Smart Grid, market expectations include characteristics like “self-healing” and “interactive” implying an instantaneous response in all conditions. In the Smart Grid, operation of the electric system will have an increased, real-time dependence on the underlying communications infrastructure.
There isn’t one single telecommunications technology solution to fill this gap. Most likely, the future communications architecture will incorporate a number of different communication technologies, an intelligent mix of wireline and wireless networks that create the most cost-efficient backhaul solution to meet the needs of the entire utility enterprise. There are a multitude of technology alternatives to choose from both public and private. The best solution or combination for a given utility will depend on a wide variety of considerations including the varying geographic, security and functional needs of a Smart Utility solution. Some insight into these challenges can be gained by considering the framework of a typical utility network.
The Utility Network’s Framework
There are 3 areas to discuss within the framework of the utility network: The Wide Area Network, the Last Mile Access Network, and the Local Area Network.
1. Wide Area Network
The core of the utility network is the Wide Area Network (WAN). It supports mission critical operations and supports intense cyber and physical security measures to protect the utility’s operations. It also often serves as the backhaul infrastructure for utility automation and other advanced network applications from the service territory to the control centers. As the core, it serves as the foundation for mobile data and voice. The utility’s Last Mile access and local area networks both stem from this core network.
Highly reliable and secure, the WAN needs to be made up of high bandwidth telecommunications technology. The gold standard of telecommunications technology would be fiber optics, such as DWDM, SONET, or MPLS Ethernet. Oftentimes, depending on the geography of the service territory, the WAN also incorporates microwave systems.
Since fiber is a high-capacity, scaleable technology, it’s considered future-proof, and can support the convergence of multiple applications (Voice, Video, Data, SCADA, Relaying, and Security) making it ideal for mission critical facilities. Fiber cable is a significant upfront investment compared to alternate wireless technologies; however its operating costs remain fairly low. An exception to this would be when fiber can be installed as an added component concurrently with other utility construction projects at a low, incremental cost. Other fiber technology considerations include the difficulties in restoration, especially underground, and the difficulty when deploying fiber over rough terrain.
When the high costs of fiber construction are not viable, an alternate solution would be microwave backhaul because it covers long distances even over mountainous terrain. It’s a reliable technology with high bandwidth capacity (OC-3 or greater) and remains a primary technology still growing in use by today’s utilities. As with any wireless solution, frequency selection and coordination are important considerations for a microwave system that can’t be overlooked.
2. Last-Mile Access Networks
The Last Mile Access Networks for a utility enterprise extend from the WAN in order to economically interconnect utility automation field devices such as reclosers, line switches, capacitor banks, and voltage regulators to the WAN. The utility infrastructure between the electrical substation and the end user is known as the distribution system, and distribution automation is envisioned as a key component of the Smart Grid. There are a number of additional technology alternatives for communicating with field devices on the distribution system including Broadband over Power Lines (BPL), Power Line Carrier (PLC), or wireless solutions such as Ethernet radio, WiMAX, or commercial carrier networks, either cellular or wireline solutions.
It’s the Last Mile Access Network that may be expected to support a majority of the Smart Grid technologies envisioned across the utility beyond the electrical substation. But as the Distribution Network becomes more automated, it also becomes potentially more vulnerable to cyber attack, and, as a result, the network supporting this automation must be able to support sophisticated cyber and physical security measures.
WiMAX is a fairly new wireless technology of wide interest among utilities as an alternative to support Automatic Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and other Smart Grid applications. It’s an IP-based solution with high bandwidth of between approximately 10-50 Mbps or greater capacity, and even though the upfront costs might be high for a private network, overall WiMAX is expected to emerge as an economical solution. It uses light-weight equipment and allows both point-to-multi-point Last Mile applications and point-to-point backhaul applications. Available frequency spectrum is a key issue for WiMAX in the United States. Whereas in Canada dedicated spectrum has been allocated for licensed use by utilities for WiMAX, there is no such allocation in the U.S.
Even though it still needs a higher capacity transport network upstream, broadband over powerlines (BPL) or power line carrier (PLC) is another option. Since it leverages and communicates using the existing electrical infrastructure, it has the potential for a plug-and-play connection, reaching every connected customer and field device. Some of the challenges with BPL include the lack of standards and technical issues like performance variations with changing conditions, such as load fluctuations, and radio interference.
3. Local Area Networks
Multiple Local Area Networks (LAN) exist in the utility enterprise. Enterprise business locations have LANs at manned locations for general business activities. As an increased number of intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) are installed at electrical substations, there is a trend to create LANs at the substation. Even advanced metering solutions can operate as LANs to interconnect industrial, commercial, and residential smart meters with the Last Mile Access Network to support customer care operations and allow the ability to support demand response applications in real-time. The LAN is backed up by both the Last Mile Access Networks and the WAN, and is also envisioned to support the future Home Area Network beyond the meter, communicating interactively with smart appliances and other customer-based solutions and applications. Telecommunications technology alternatives for a LAN include a myriad of choices including unlicensed or licensed RF, BPL/PLC, WiMAX, or even commercial cellular or wireline networks.
Smart Grid’s LifeBlood
In order to develop and operate a Smart Grid, electric utilities must meet a variety of emerging and advancing requirements. The future Smart Grid is envisioned to include thousands of endpoints potentially creating an avalanche of data. Leveraging this data to create a more secure, reliable, and efficient electric system represents both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity of the Smart Grid. Dealing with all this data will require a robust, flexible telecommunications solution built on a combination of technologies. However, regardless of this combination, with the advent of the Smart Grid, the mission-critical operations of the electric infrastructure itself will depend on telecommunications in a greater way than ever before. Smart utilities include a telecommunications master plan as an important component of their strategy for the Smart Grid.
About the Author
Glen Magel is Manager of Business Development for Black & Veatch’s Utility Communication and Automation group, a provider of consulting, engineering, procurement and construction solutions for utility private networks with a unique understanding of both utility infrastructure and telecommunications technology. For more information, visit www.bvtelecom.com and www.bv.com.