By: Phil Beecher, president and CEO, Wi-SUN Alliance
It’s been a tough year for many utility providers, hit by financial concerns and worries over workforce productivity. Yet from the ashes of a potentially catastrophic event, global providers are already plotting the way to a brighter future — using smart technology to reduce costs, streamline processes and meet sustainability goals. The key going forward will be to align on open, interoperable platforms that offer security, reliability and predictability.
The cost of COVID
It’s no secret that COVID-19 has had a major impact on energy providers. Demand stalled across many countries in 2020 as factories, plants and commercial facilities shut down, deflating wholesale prices. A temporary pausing of disconnections and debt collection activities also depressed revenues, while operating costs increased in some areas thanks to required investments in worker PPE and remote working IT equipment. Besides these cost pressures, utilities providers will be keeping a close eye on sustainability commitments once energy demand resumes in 2021.
In this context, IoT technologies such as smart metering and intelligent lighting offer some attractive benefits. They allow providers to manage deployments remotely, reducing operational expenditure and enhancing staff productivity. Data can be collected and correlated to detect outages and restore services more quickly, and to offer customers a more personalized service which can also help them reduce consumption.
Utilities under pressure
However, there are two persistent challenges associated with smart utilities roll-outs: security and costs. Both were highlighted in Wi-SUN Alliance research from 2019 which found them to be the top two barriers to smart city deployments. When asked about their specific security concerns, respondents pointed to data privacy as their biggest worry (37%), followed by attacks on critical infrastructure (28%), network vulnerabilities (24%) and insecure IoT devices (11%).
Attacks on critical infrastructure have certainly grabbed the headlines over recent years, as nation states become bolder in their attempts to interfere in energy grids. The most notable were Russian attacks which caused power outages in Ukraine in 2015 and 2016, although lower-profile incidents continue to this day. The European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) was the latest industry organization to report a cyber intrusion, just this year.
When it comes to cost, industry concerns are no less acute. Thanks to COVID-19 pressures, investment in much-needed new smart projects remains muted. This makes tech interoperability more important than ever, as it means utility providers can leverage existing investments to support new projects without needing to embark on expensive rip-and-replace or integration efforts.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find true interoperability. Sometimes different vendors produce tech based on the same foundational standards. However, because of the unique way they are implemented, these products will not work together seamlessly unless one-off hardware integrations are built—creating extra expense, complexity and sustainability challenges.
The future is open
This is where the Wi-SUN Alliance comes in. Since our founding in 2012 we’ve been on a mission to bring smart utility networks to enterprises, service providers and municipalities by enabling interoperability. The key offering in this space is our mesh-enabled field area networks (FAN) communications infrastructure for very large outdoor networks.
The model offers several benefits for utilities providers in key areas of cost, resilience, security and coverage. As a mesh design, it provides greater resilience to hacking and signal jamming, and reduces the single points of failure and black spots that affect star networks. Because transmissions between nodes are usually made over short distances, they’re also more power efficient and perform better.
Security-wise the Wi-SUN FAN uses the strong AES link layer function of IEEE 802.15.4, provides packet encryption by the link layer, and uses IETF EAP-TLS for network authentication and IEEE 802.11i for key management. It supports IPv6 and enables network security features such as intrusion detection, network analysis, and traffic shaping, which further mitigates the risk of serious cyber-attacks such as Denial of Service (DoS).
As our approach to security clearly shows, the Wi-SUN Alliance is all about the promotion of open, interoperable standards. Not only can they help utility firms avoid vendor lock-in, drive-up choice and reduce costs, but they ensure you’re rolling out systems proven to be optimized for performance, security and resilience. Standards unlock the value that is reduced TCO, while enhancing ROI.
It’s already here
The good news is that utility firms are already embracing Wi-SUN FAN to drive these benefits, at a time when sustainability is front-of-mind for providers, shareholders and customers. Only through true interoperability between customer-side edge sensing devices and providers’ AMI infrastructure and analytics can we hope to unlock the value of smart approaches to help reduce emissions. Wi-SUN FAN is proven to help firms better integrate and manage distributed energy resources, enhance outage management and restoration, drive new business models and meet regulatory requirements.
A great example is the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which is working to connect nearly 30 million utility and consumer devices using Wi-SUN capable RF mesh network technology. Basing its platform on open standards means the firm can leverage equipment from multiple manufacturers to minimize costs and drive innovation now and in the future. Meanwhile, in Miami, Florida Power & Light has rolled out the world’s largest smart street lighting deployment of half a million installations to slash carbon emissions. Both it and a second-placed deployment in Paris are based on Wi-SUN capable mesh networks.
The future’s bright for utility providers, if they continue to focus on interoperability and open standards as we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic.
About the Author
Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance and a recognized global expert on wireless IoT. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org