EPRI examines state-of-the-art in power line communications

Palo Alto, Calif., July 10, 2002 — The rapid growth of the Internet has created a consumer appetite for broadband access.

To date this is most often provided by cable and DSL over telephone lines. But the attraction of using power lines for communications is undeniable, for the infrastructure is already in place.

Three technical reports recently released by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and its subsidiary, Primen, outline the state of the technology and explain the business and technical hurdles that lie ahead.

In the most recent report, “Communication on Power Lines: Changing Business and Technology Ramifications,” the authors explain that the major technical challenge power line communication technology faces is high speed over long distances.

Says EPRI project manager Laurence Carmichael, “More than three dozen companies offer various electronic components or products that permit some form of communication over power lines, and further work is proceeding aggressively.” A section of the report provides brief profiles of some of these companies, both in the U.S. and overseas.

“The elusive ‘silver bullet’ remains a target, says Carmichael. “Any long-distance product that could offer high-speed Internet access, voice telephony, perhaps interactive video in a way that was convenient for customers and lower in cost than the alternatives, would probably be a winner.”

A second EPRI report acquaints readers with the essential principles of physics that underlie any high-speed PLC system – use of the power lines as a waveguiding structure for wideband communications. Waveguiding refers to the use of a physical structure to guide the electromagnetic waves.

The report also examines the cost of conditioning the power system to allow wideband communications, the impact of wideband communications on the operation and maintenance of the power system, and the potential for interference with licensed users of the 2-30MHz spectrum. In the United States, services authorized to use these frequencies include navigation, safety services, space research, radio astronomy services, and amateur radio operators.

The report provides detailed comparisons of the North American and European standards and regulations that would apply to wideband power line communications.

A third report, issued by Primen, entitled “Power line communications: Now have we found the pot of gold?” asks the question, “Is PLC a viable concept?” in a series of in-depth interviews with key players in the PLC market, including industry experts and utility representatives.

David Lineweber, Primen president and the study’s coauthor, says, “Clearly, PLC technology has made major strides over the past four years and now shows significant promise. We have evidence that the many technological barriers that constrained both the low-voltage distribution network and the in-home, power line infrastructure from carrying clear, secure, and high-speed data have been overcome.

Although the technological plausibility of high speed power line communications seems reasonably certain on the primary distribution lines, the commercial business case remains a completely open question.”

“Positive developments simply move the biggest issue from the technology side to the business-case side – not can it be done, but will customers pay enough for it to be worthwhile?” Lineweber continued.

Clark Gellings, Vice-President of Power Delivery and Markets at EPRI added, “The principal advantage of power line communications is that no additional infrastructure is required. PLC can have clear advantages in areas where there is no other transmission infrastructure or where the distances from communication nodes are too large. A successful product also must be low cost to acquire, install, and operate, consistent with the economics of the applications it supports. Here lies the challenge.”

Primen (www.primen.com) is an energy market intelligence company that develops, analyzes, and delivers comprehensive, timely information and analysis tools related to electric and natural gas markets, competitors, pricing, and new energy products and services. Primen was created in 2000 by the nation’s leading energy research and development organizations: EPRI in Palo Alto, Calif., and Chicago-based GTI.

EPRI, headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., was established in 1973 as a non-profit center for public interest energy and environmental research. EPRI’s collaborative science and technology development program now spans nearly every area of power generation, delivery and use. More than 1,000 energy organizations and public institutions in 40 countries draw on EPRI’s global network of technical and business expertise.

Visit the EPRI Journal Online at http://www.epri.com/journal/.

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