The Evolving Grid: Why Smart Technology and Wireless Communication Go Hand-in-Hand

By Germán Fernández, Belden Inc.

The seeds of the current smart grid were planted back in the 1980s when electronic control monitoring and metering were introduced. The technological innovations of the 1990s-which included digital control systems, graphical interfaces and software-then made two-way communication in the electrical grid possible. This allowed local grids to grow and eventually become interconnected to boost efficiency and reliability.

Over time, the grid evolved to meet even higher power demands. The smart grid was born. Our modern grid has automated digital communication and can gather and act on real-time data about the behaviors of suppliers and consumers.

Now, more than ever before, teams can maximize the throughput of the system and improve overall energy efficiency.

Through sensors connected to the grid and various machines that capture real-time data, the monitoring, analysis and control capabilities that come with the modern grid and bi-directional communication greatly improve the reliability, safety, economics and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity. Government mandates, coupled with greater industry competition, are spurring large investment in the smart grid movement worldwide.

Using wireless communication to improve efficiency

Core to the success of smart grid applications are wireless technologies, which introduce many benefits to engineers working in the power generation and distribution space, including:

“- Remote monitoring: With 4G communication networks deployed across the grid, utilities can remotely locate, isolate and restore power outages, which increases the stability of the grid.

“- Access to information: With wireless technologies, teams can gain access to information anytime, anywhere and gain better accessibility by using mobile workforces connected to a company intranet.

“- Reduced costs: When no fixed deployment infrastructure is needed, network cost and deployment complexity are reduced and greater flexibility and scalability are provided.

Cellular over a public network combines the benefits of high-penetration frequencies with telecom utilities’ already available backbone that’s connected to the Internet. High-speed data access over cellular communications is great for reaching local assets in remote utility facilities and third-party installations. This cellular technology is used to transfer data in a secure, reliable way and provide connectivity over a public network to utility substations, energy generation locations, utility offices and secondary transformation centers.

Because it facilitates two-way communication, remote monitoring and better gird control, which lead to greater broadband speeds and quick and easy installation, 4G is ideal for smart grids. By supporting multiple megabits, 4G gives grid operators the ability to not only address the primary meter communications requirements of the network, but also to leverage a common platform for real property management, mobile workforce connectivity and camera security backhaul.

What to look for when choosing wireless

A variety of wireless technologies are available for substation applications. Typical options include short-range Wi-Fi or ZigBee, city-range cellular 3G, 4G-WiMax or radio, long-range via radio microwave, or operator’s backbone. It is important to know whether the team needs a point-to-point, point-to-multipoint or mesh communication configuration. The type of traffic-asymmetric or symmetric-matters because it might require different technologies.

The multitude of available options can lead to a lot of pressing questions for teams: What technology do we choose for our specific application? What characteristics should this technology have? What will the implications for this wireless component be in this specific environment? What scalability and deployment issues might we face?

It’s crucial that the data networks in smart grid applications operate reliably in harsh environments and withstand high electromagnetic interferences (EMI), large temperature variations, shocks, vibrations and dust. This necessity requires special performance features and the utmost network resiliency.

In addition, choosing a robust portfolio of technologies that includes everything from cables, connectors, patch cords and patch panels to wired and wireless switches, routers and firewalls for harsh environments is a great place to start. Teams should look for the following:

“- Compact Ethernet port LTE router for unlimited network connectivity

“- Integrated firewalls for maximum perimeter protection of the network

“- Dual SIMS for network redundancy to ensure connectivity availability in case of network failure

“- GPS for geospatial localization that allows engineers to check the connection status of each device and ensure network security and availability

The need for smart technology

The smart grid is the foundation for meeting the world’s energy efficiency goals and a springboard for transitioning to a low carbon economy. It plays a crucial role in efficiently producing and using electricity in our homes, businesses and public institutions.

As more organizations make commitments to developing a smarter grid, investments in distribution automation devices, metering infrastructure, security and mobile devices will grow. Wireless products will be the most critical technologies of the modern grid because they connect the various devices with important data and help teams make informed decisions about energy efficiency. As the grid becomes even more sophisticated and data rates increase to support it, solid wireless communication networks will be crucial for success.

Authors note

For more information on how to successfully implement wireless communication in smart grid deployments, read this white paper: “Guide to Wireless Communication in Smart Grid Deployments” at http://info.belden.com/iit/wireless-communication-smart-grid-deployments-bc-lp.


Germán Fernández is Belden Inc.’s global vertical marketing manager for power generation, transmission and distribution. He has 15 years of experience in the electric power industry, specifically pertaining to industrial Ethernet networking and telecommunications technologies. Fernández has managed power projects worldwide as a system integrator and brings a deep understanding of cybersecurity needs for electric power utilities to his role at Belden. He is also a member of the Cigre Working Group D2.40. Reach him at german.fernandez@belden.com

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