Sinai Opens Door on Broadband Smart Grid Communication

 

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is serious about the smart grid. It hired Nick Sinai, a former venture capitalist, to fill the new energy and environment director position.

With an eye toward broadband initiatives, Sinai began his tenure with an Aug. 25 smart grid webcast.

 

History and Background

 

Sinai has worked for Polaris Ventures (having served as vice president for GreenFuel Technologies), Tenaya Capital and Lehman Brothers Venture Partner.

Sinai is well-known as a communications industry expert on broadband, an area that has lagged since broadband over powerline (BPL) fell out of industry vogue as a potential way to tap end user markets. (See sidebar for more information on BPL.)

The broadband initiatives at the FCC, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), are intended to accelerate broadband deployment across the United States.

The ARRA authorizes the FCC to create the National Broadband Plan that “shall seek to ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability and shall establish benchmarks for meeting that goal.” While that doesn’t mean that BPL will be back in favor in the industry, it could mean a huge boost at the opposite end from customers–namely power transmission and distribution.

Private Equity Hub (peHub) quoted an e-mail in which Sinai writes that he will head “a team that will examine how broadband/communications infrastructure and policies can support our national energy and environmental goals, with an emphasis on the smart grid.”

 

FCC Webcast on Broadband

 

The goal of the live webcast, “FCC’s Workshop on Smart Grid, Broadband and Climate Change,” was to identify potential impacts of a National Broadband Plan on energy, the environment and transportation. The FCC wanted to explore how the broadband and communications infrastructure can play a transformative role in meeting national energy, environmental and transportation goals.

The FCC noted its interest in learning how broadband can accelerate efforts to build a smarter electricity infrastructure.

Sinai, who had worked nearly a month at the FCC when the webcast aired, gathered vendor, utility and thought leader participants. They included Eric Lightner, director of the Federal Smart Grid Task Force for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE); Dean Prochaska, national coordinator for smart grid conformance with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Mark Dudzinski, GE Energy’s chief marketing officer; Eric Miller, Trilliant’s senior vice president of solutions; Henry Jones, SmartSynch’s chief scientist; Joby Lafky, program manager of an electric vehicle management platform at GridPoint; and Jason Griffith, AEP’s director of IT telecom engineering.

Sinai said there are a lot of smart grid definitions.

“Sometimes it’s hard to understand what the smart grid means,” he said, “but all elements that I’ve seen have a communication requirement.

“Having worked both in communication and energies, I can tell you that both are essential services. Both built reliable networks, but there are some differences. There’s been tremendous innovation in communications, but perhaps less so in electric power. Spending is pretty low. It’s been said that dog food makers spend more money on research than the power industry.”

Most webcast speakers said that communications must be viewed as a major part of a smart grid project.

NIST’s Prochaska confirmed this.

“Wireless communication for smart grid is an area we need to hone in on during our action plan,” he said.

But it’s not as simple as laying out cash, the speakers said. Problems exist: data volumes and data speed, GE’s Dudzinski said.

Smart grid is not just about metering, Miller, of Trilliant, said.

“There’s grid communications, real-time communications, information on energy use and price in the home,” he said. “When we look at communications needed for that, it drives a different model.

“Many of those will require true broadband capacity. The key is bandwidth. It will be critical. Controlling a substation doesn’t require much, but an additional video feed to watch the substation requires megabits of additional capacity. As we increase the need of users, bandwidth needs expand exponentially.”

The question remains whether to use commercial options available (the same network cell phones use) or build a private network for utilities. Miller wants the private option, but Jones with SmartSynch sees more positives with the network already available.

Miller is worried about backhaul issues; Jones is looking at the practical economy of it all. Nothing has been decided.

Griffith with AEP doesn’t take a side on public or private networks. As a utility representative, he is concerned about two items: money and coverage. Whether communications needs are covered by a commercial option or a private one isn’t nearly as important as how it answers these questions: Will it work? Will it be reliable? Will the costs be passed on to rate payers?

Nothing was officially decided during the FCC’s broadband webcast. With a new, energy-focused director, the FCC positions itself to be a major debater.

Information from the FCC Workshop on Smart Grid, Broadband and Climate Change can be found on its Web site.

On the Net: http://www.broadband.gov/ws_eng_env_trans.html

 

BPL Not Ready for Prime Time Smart Grid

 

By John Joyce, Ambient Corp.

Broadband over powerline (BPL) technology has tried for years to find a niche in the high-speed Internet market by providing data connectivity everywhere the electrical grid reaches. While the universal connectivity scenario never worked out and some industry experts have proclaimed the death of BPL, others are using the technology for emerging smart grid pilot projects.

With BPL pilots underway, does the technology have a place in a more seamless, reliable smart grid of the future? BPL presents several technology and investment challenges for a smart grid deployment. BPL does not perform well in the overhead U.S. electrical distribution topology and thus today a BPL signal cannot communicate over long distances or through a transformer without couplers and repeaters to bypass the transformer and boost the signal. This additional equipment increases overall deployment costs and eliminates cost savings associated with using the existing wires. In a purely BPL backbone, the architecture is much like a string of holiday lights. If a middle light (BPL device repeating the signal) goes out, all the subsequent lights (BPL devices) will be affected and the signal will be lost.

There are further problems in transmitting BPL signals over power lines, including interference issues caused and experienced by a BPL system. Overhead electrical distribution wires are unshielded from radio frequency (RF) interference, therefore BPL signals traveling on medium-voltage overhead lines have the potential to interfere with shortwave radio operators. Local RF using unlicensed spectrum also can interfere with the BPL network signal, and because the spectrum is unlicensed, mitigation can be timely and costly. Issues with a BPL network interfering with itself also exist. This interference can be reduced with time division and frequency division. Current methods for time division work best in parallel street patterns (obviously, not the way the electrical distribution system is organized) while frequency division can work in small, one-neighborhood pilots, but is not practical for multiple connected neighborhoods. In 2007, the city of Austin, Texas, which conducted a pilot covering 10 city blocks, concluded that BPL is slow, unreliable and extremely costly compared with alternate broadband technologies.

Today’s BPL technology is not mature enough for near-term smart grid projects, nor is it scalable for future wide-scale smart grid deployments, especially as the grid moves beyond advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) applications. Wireless communications alternatives to BPL exist that are better equipped to handle the broadband, high-speed communications required to transmit and manage the information overdrive that utility grids will soon experience.

In Boulder, Colo., the SmartGridCity pilot underway uses BPL in combination with short-range radio links to send data from electric meters, water heaters, thermostats and renewable energy systems. The data flows along the power lines for about a kilometer, but attempting greater distances would require multiple repeaters to deal with signal attenuation while significantly reducing the bandwidth.

There is no single broadband solution that meets all of the criteria needed for the smart grid, but cellular and WiMAX technologies offer higher, more reliable bandwidth. High-bandwidth and low-latency communication networks will become increasingly important for the smart grid as it moves beyond AMI and real-time pricing to include new applications, such as demand side management, distributed generation and connecting renewables to the grid.

WiMAX and cellular technologies have the bandwidth, signal-penetration capabilities and other comparable functionality making them a stronger communications backbone for the smart grid. The smart grid of the future likely will incorporate a hybrid of existing wired communications technologies supplemented with wireless connectivity. The smart grid will integrate RF technologies that are already deployed and add a more robust backbone to these communications. This backbone will allow for the use of other communications technologies including BPL. For now, BPL can only serve as one of many communication technologies that will be used in a smart grid, not the core backbone.

One day BPL may be part of the smart grid backbone, but today it’s at best a single vertebra among a host of stronger, better connected ones.

John Joyce is president and CEO of Ambient Corp.

 

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