Electricity is as fundamental to our daily lives as the air we breathe. It plays a vital role in the U.S. economy, national security and in the very existence of more than 300 million Americans.
Utility information technology leaders carry the full weight of this knowledge and unique responsibility squarely on their shoulders and continue to evaluate new technologies to enhance operations and system reliability. Meanwhile, stakeholders and consumers increasingly will not tolerate shortfalls.
Smart grid communication infrastructure is essentially the Internet for electricity transmission and distribution systems, with information technologies embedded throughout the systems such as digital meters, remote sensors and data communication devices.
Smart grid technologies provide energy producers and consumers with real-time information and better control of the electric grid, improving energy reliability, reducing energy costs and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. The future we are moving toward in power delivery: when communications fail, power delivery to the consumer is at risk.
Improving grid communications infrastructure requires a cost-effective, secure and reliable way to improve service, reduce costs and ready the grid for additional upgrades as they make the best business sense to deploy.
The boundaries of the enterprise have moved far beyond the brick and mortar walls of the utility, to the side of each consumer’s home. Today, utilities are increasingly deploying licensed and unlicensed wireless broadband solutions in a number of key areas to provide:
“- Backhaul for automated metering infrastructure (AMI)
“- Increase connectivity to distributed SCADA sensors and control points
“- High-performance backhaul links for distribution automation
“- Connectivity to deliver real-time information to mobile work crews for better decision-making
According to a report from research and consulting firm Zpryme, the U.S. smart grid market is expected to double, reaching nearly $43 billion by 2014. The drive behind smart grid investments lies in available supply being outstripped by increasing demand and the real threat of what a loss of power could mean in our society.
Instead of building more costly power plants, most experts believe that if we manage demand for energy and the distribution of energy better, we can cost effectively and efficiently close the gap between supply and demand.
“- Cost of new power plants exceeds the cost for managing demand and distribution
“- Going green and energy management is a global initiative, requiring distributed control
Operationally, smart grid technologies need to help utilities contain costs and deliver a reasonable, achievable return on investment. By having the ability to leverage solutions across multiple applications, they can positively impact OPEX and CAPEX spending, effectively lowering a utility’s total cost of ownership.
A connected utility reliably and securely moves data from one location to another: to and from field deployed workers and remote meters; to distribution controls; and, to customers to manage the network more effectively. This ability is critical to a community’s economic and social success.
Technology investments must ensure continuous operations and maximize power availability. New capabilities should assist with the rapid diagnosis and resolution of issues when they occur, minimizing down time and associated energy costs.
Providing complete communications coverage is a key factor affecting success. Any gaps or holes in a coverage area can create inefficiencies. Utilities need to have backhaul solutions to deliver high capacity to a service area, distribution solutions to serve neighborhoods, and access solutions to connect individual users and equipment. Utilities require the planning tools to design, deploy, manage and optimize them to ensure they work together as one integrated network solution.
As with any infrastructure investment, the better you can plan for and stay ahead of projected needs, the more efficient and cost-effective operations will be. Smart grid technologies, particularly wireless communications infrastructure, help take costs out of the investment equation over the long-term.
One U.S. Department of Energy study calculated internal modernization of U.S. grids with smart grid technologies would save between $46 and $117 billion over the next 20 years just due to reduced transmission losses — key, as estimated demand is projected to increase by double over that same time frame.
Having more control of and visibility to key components of operations — from transmission and distribution to communications — gives utilities access to better information so they can make better decisions and achieve better results.
Solutions that leverage private wireless networks offer that control, as well as greater security, improved QoS, information assurance, and greater bandwidth for applications to run on one common network backbone. Ease of integration into existing infrastructure also impacts overall system management.
Early examples of the connected utility include Wisconsin Public Service Corporation and MapleNet in Indiana, who have designed and deployed their own networks and leveraged wireless broadband links for AMI and SCADA applications.
Those networks can be leveraged to support additional applications as they are deployed in the future. Examples of these applications include support for remote computing devices for the employees, asset management applications for project management, and in the case of some cooperatives, client Internet access.
As utilities move to meet a number of reliability measurements, their communications infrastructure plays a vital role in the ability to collect information for compliance reports. In addition to traditional benchmarks, more accurate measurement also gives you insight into how equipment is performing and potential failure risks – thus enabling a proactive interaction between the utility, its maintenance crews and the customer.
Despite the buzz, the entire industry is understandably approaching smart grid investments cautiously. Economic uncertainty and funding challenges make it even more important to create a logical and cost-effective migration strategy. Key initial priorities will focus on improving service reliability and operational efficiencies.
While deployment models and smart grid solutions proliferate, the smart grid needs to be fused with high-level security and interoperability standards, such as those endorsed by the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, GSM Association, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association (IEEE-SA) and the Telecommunication Industry Association.
By integrating digital computing and communication technologies and services with the power-delivery infrastructure, the smart grid will enable bidirectional flows of energy and two-way communication and control capabilities.
A range of new applications and capabilities will result. Anticipated benefits range from real-time consumer control over energy usage to significantly increased reliance on solar and other sources of clean renewable energy to greatly improve reliability, flexibility and efficiency of the entire grid.
The challenge of effectively renewing the pluggable hybrid fleet for its daily commute, without overtaxing neighborhood infrastructures, demands effective and intelligent communications.
As smart grid technologies get deployed, everyone has a vested interest in ensuring that security standards are developed and adopted with them to avoid unexpected opportunities for adversaries to penetrate these systems or conduct large-scale attacks.
The priority efforts to take advantage of stimulus money already have some security experts concerned that many utilities will cut corners to get smart grid solutions deployed, ignoring risks and vulnerabilities in the process.
To protect the grid and the greater connectivity required by new capabilities, reliable methods for confidentiality, integrity, authentication, authorization, access control, availability and non-repudiation must be incorporated into new smart grid devices and protocols. Federal Information Processing Standards approved Advanced Encryption Standard and Triple Data Encryption Standard solutions are readily available to be deployed for smart grid solutions.
We know utilities take the commitment to responsibly serve their communities seriously. Delivered services must be robust, reliable and secure in a deregulated and highly competitive environment.
Surprises must be avoided and proactive planning is critical. The smart grid will transform how utilities interact and connect with their employees, customers, other grid companies and technology partners. But there is much work to be done.
Overhauling the aging electric grid will be a slow, often challenging process. However, as the focus sharpens on efficiency, reliability and security, the utility industry will see sweeping, significant returns on their investments – and lower TCO over time – by aligning with the right partners to adopt new smart grid technologies and strategies.
Author: Scott Propp, Senior Director, Engineering and Technology, Motorola Solutions, Inc., has played a role in directing large-scale projects and business initiatives for Motorola Inc. for about 15 years.
Currently, Propp leads a team that specializes in vertical market applications for wireless broadband. The team’s work has spanned several critical infrastructure industries including safety applications for intelligent transportation, smart grid for the utility space and high performance applications for the federal government. Scott holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in engineering and an MBA.