The U.S. electrical grid loses power 285 percent more often than it did in 1984, according to federal data released by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) in 2013. In fact, the United States has the dubious distinction of experiencing more blackouts than any other developed nation in the world. A report from the DOE revealed that these blackouts cost American businesses around $150 billion per year.
Aging infrastructure, a lack of clear public policy to modernize the grid, terrorism threats and climate change are partly to blame for the increasing number of outages. The main cause, however, is the rising demand for electricity, despite an impressive number of energy efficient products and buildings. Add to that summer months and the need for air-conditioning and the grid struggles to keep up with peak demand.
Smart distribution can help ease the drain on power resources and revenue. A system capable of smart distribution uses embedded intelligence to achieve grid optimization. Utilities operating this type of system can remotely monitor, manage and control circuits in real time from the substation to the end of the line. To achieve this advanced operation, the system uses sensors in conjunction with reclosers, automated switches, capacitor banks and voltage regulators.
A smart distribution system enables utility companies to more efficiently distribute power throughout the grid during non-peak hours in many municipalities and rural areas, effectively creating surplus electricity they can then sell to areas that require higher output around the clock. For example, a utility company servicing a rural area where most businesses close early could sell the power it no longer needs at certain hours to a utility company servicing New York City. This scenario presents a revenue-generating opportunity for utility companies, and helps to better distribute power during times when less power may be needed in one place but more is needed in another. Real-time information allows for this type of scenario, offering a way to improve efficiency without building costly power plants. Wireless networks are used as the eyes and ears of the grid, allowing real-time distribution of power based on factors such as time of day and weather.
Kinetic mesh is an advanced wireless technology that has emerged as a viable option for delivering real-time information across a robust, reliable network to achieve smart distribution. It offers a remedy for blackouts, a source of revenue generation for utility companies, and a way to reduce costs for consumers.
Optimization is a Win-Win for All
In a kinetic mesh network, nodes use multiple radio frequencies to communicate with one another, eliminating the need for a root node or controller. When utility workers need to perform service calls, they can connect to the network via any Wi-Fi enabled device, as the kinetic mesh can act as a WiFi access point. These kinetic mesh network nodes can communicate not only on fixed structures, but also on trucks or on any other mobile asset.
Nodes, which obtain up-to-date information from meters on buildings, act as tools that facilitate power usage optimization at premium use times. In addition, utility companies can collect the information via the mesh network, saving the power company from dispatching workers to read meters. With a mesh network, utilities can review updated information in minutes.
Users benefit because smart distribution allows them to see how much energy they are consuming each month and how they can reduce costs by altering their usage. They can review their usage online and adjust their settings accordingly to lower their bills. In addition, because this type of system uses real-time data to deliver information, consumers can access updated numbers as often as every five minutes. For example, they can use smart meters to turn off utilities before they leave on vacation.
With greater details on usage levels, utility companies can determine how to better distribute power according to when consumers use it most. Utility providers also can make consumers aware of rates at peak hours, and charge a premium at certain times of day.
The Healing Power of Kinetic Mesh
Recognizing the need for a more reliable grid, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act invested $4.5 billion for electricity delivery and energy modernization efforts, matched by private funding to total $8 billion. This legislation was the impetus for the energy sector to begin modernizing the power infrastructure.
Utility companies jumped into action, adding new equipment such as sensors, reclosers and switchgear to their networks. These purchases spurred the effort and laid the foundation for a more reliable, modernized grid. The grid also required, however, a more robust communications infrastructure for remote monitoring and automation.
Kinetic mesh private wireless networks offer a modern solution. Kinetic mesh enables people and organizations to deploy networks into places where communications infrastructure have lacked in reliability, or to quickly move networks into places where they never existed.
Because of their design, kinetic mesh networks are “fail-safe” as well. Nodes communicate with each other rather than relying on a single controller node to drive communication. They possess the flexibility to transmit and receive data through a myriad of “backbone” connectivity solutions, including long-term evolution (LTE), satellite and point-to-point wireless or wired networks. The approach enables the network to rebuild and “heal” itself. As such, kinetic mesh networks have been dubbed “living networks” because they can maintain communication paths despite the loss of one or more nodes.
Unlike other wireless networking technologies, kinetic mesh networks mitigate communication downtime because the nodes in those networks use radios to perform multiple functions concurrently. This is possible because nodes work with multiple frequencies and possess the intelligence to switch frequencies if one of them encounters interference. Each node is a part of the infrastructure and is connected to other nodes, creating a fault-tolerant network. If one node is incapacitated, communication between other nodes continues. The more nodes users add to the network, the stronger the network becomes.
Bringing Kinetic Mesh to a Neighborhood Near You
Due to this attribute, some municipalities are tapping kinetic mesh to address the dead zones found in LTE networks.
If a transformer blows, the grid, girded by a kinetic mesh network, can recognize the failure and re-direct power. Kinetic mesh’s redundancy goes a long way toward mitigating outages. It also helps to bolster communications.
A grid that uses an LTE network could lose its connection to the concentrator, whereas with kinetic mesh, the system continues to send data, preserving communication and visibility. Visibility allows utility workers to repair outages faster.
Prior to kinetic mesh networks, an alarm would alert workers to an outage, but the system did not pinpoint the location. The data collected on a mesh network can determine exactly where, as well as how many homes, the outage has affected. Utility companies can get an idea of whether it is one house or a major incident. All of the affected homes are connected to the same collection station, so workers can use data to analyze the station and, in some cases, re-direct power to the affected homes.
As energy demands mount, so will the challenges toward preventing blackouts and reducing costs for utility companies and their customers. Smart distribution, supported by kinetic mesh, can enable electrical grids to perform at optimum levels and under less strain. In a few years, the number of outages in the U.S. may just begin to dim.
Kirk Byles is senior vice president of sales and marketing at Rajant Corp., a private wireless network provider and mobile networking pioneer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.