Communication Networks: The Missing Link With Smart Grids

By Tom Ayers, Tropos Networks

Making the power grid a smart grid will encompass vast changes to infrastructure (communications, applications, endpoint devices), operations (centralized monitoring and control, outage management, video security) and customer relations (home devices, power usage, behavior programs).

Communication networks are an essential, fundamental element upon which to build all of these smart grid capabilities.

The smart grid communications networks must deliver bidirectional flow of information end to end—from power generation across transmission and distribution grids to the point of power consumption and to the utility core network. But is that all we should expect of the communications network for the smart grid?

No, not by a long shot.

During my conversations with many municipal utilities, it struck me that we should think about more than the power grid when we think smart grid.

Why?

Efficiency.

Like power, water and gas utilities are in a transformative state—although their evolution is occurring at different rates—and are moving toward making changes to their infrastructure, operations and customer relations, which involves deploying smart technologies. They, too, are building a smart grid. Smart grid capabilities such as smart meters, remote monitoring of endpoints and remote control of devices are all included in the next generation of power, water and gas utilities. Further, the coverage area of these utility infrastructures hugely overlap, which seems like a great opportunity to look for synergy.

The common element for all smart grids is the communications network.

Smart grid communications networks for utilities share many common requirements. They must:

  • Be capable of connecting many endpoints or varying types,
  • Support multiple applications with a range of communications requirements (high-performance down to a few kilobits per second every few hours),
  • Scale to provide coverage across a utility’s service area,
  • Have robust centralized management and control,
  • Have strong security, and
  • Allow mobile workers access to information from virtually anywhere in the service area.

Why build three networks for utility smart grid communications? Is it realistic for utilities to share a common communications infrastructure for power, water and gas smart grids?

Some utilities already use a common network for these purposes. Glendale (Calif.) Water & Power, a municipal power and water utility, is deploying a single, wireless broadband network across its coverage area that will aggregate communications including backhaul of smart power and water meters, home-area network applications, distribution automation and water leak-detection sensors.

The city of Rock Hill, S.C., uses a single, wireless broadband network across its coverage area to support multiple utility applications including backhaul of smart water and power meters, mobile utility applications and outage management.

The municipal utility in Corpus Christi, Texas, uses a single, wireless broadband network for backhaul of smart water and gas meters; other city departments also use the network for mobile work force applications.

During a tough economy, doesn’t it make sense to consider efficiencies in how we build smart grids?

A common network that consolidates communications for all smart grids—power, water and gas, alike—can work and eliminates unnecessary redundancy.

Tom Ayers is CEO of Tropos Networks.

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