The Smart Grid-Turning Challenges Into Success


by Mark Madden and Lynn Hunt, Alcatel-Lucent

Providing electricity requires more than power generation, transmission and distribution. Utilities face challenges in balancing supply and demand, whether because of increased consumer requirements, barriers to increasing generation capacity or the introduction of intermittent energy resources such as wind power. They also must control operational expenditures to maintain cost control or profitability, depending on whether they are municipal or investor-owned. Finally, they must provide a reliable, secure operational environment to meet consumer expectations that power will remain available with guaranteed quality.

The smart grid will address these challenges and more. To ensure its success, utilities must build intimacy with their customers, distribution assets and work forces. Building intimacy will enable operators to predict and influence behavior, control the quality of renewable energy sources and take full advantage of their physical and human resources, bringing the smart grid’s powerful benefits to fruition.

A Foundation For Success

Building intimacy requires a common technical foundation: a dynamic, secure and adaptable, mission-critical communications network. This network acts as an information bridge among operators and their consumers, assets and work forces, creating a reliable, two-way exchange of real-time information.

Implementing the smart grid requires careful planning and a holistic approach to meet all objectives. The communications network as the foundation of the smart grid must be flexible enough to support all the new applications. It must be extended deep into the distribution grids so it has ubiquitous coverage and can support millions of monitoring and control points. It must provide predictable performance, despite the unpredictability and evolving requirements of smart grid applications. It also must be secure and manageable.

Key Smart Grid Considerations

Because communication networks provide the smart grid foundation, strategic decisions related to their architecture and supporting technologies can influence the near- and long-term success of any initiative. The following considerations are key in determining the right communications foundation for your own smart grid planning and deployment:

  • Creating an end-to-end strategy. It might be tempting to build a network for substation automation only, or perhaps distribution automation and nothing else, but the best use of technology is to take an end-to-end approach to architecture. Look at the entire network, then build a communications platform that’s robust and flexible enough to support current and future applications.
  • Seeing the network as a whole. Look at your smart grid network as a whole entity, not as individual components. How do all your systems interoperate with one another? How does data travel across the network? The overall network is made of smaller networks and other components. Understand how all the pieces must come together in the deployment phase.
  • Moving to Internet Protocol (IP) to support new applications. The smart grid requires putting a lot of devices into the distribution network, the key link between transmission and consumption. It also requires interoperability among old and new systems. IP technology provides the flexibility and scalability to achieve this. IP gets everything onto the same digital platform so systems can talk to one another.
  • Preserving the integrity of traditional applications. Although utilities are introducing many new applications such as smart metering and distribution automation, legacy devices that support supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), teleprotection, operational voice and other applications will be needed for years. The network must support communications protocols and enable the convergence of new and old applications over a common, predictable and secure network infrastructure.
  • Enabling predictable performance with IP/multiprotocol label switching (MPLS). IP alone is a nondeterministic technology; you can neither determine a route that a specific data packet will take when it’s sent across the network nor can you determine the time it will take to get there. That’s where MPLS comes in. IP/MPLS places labels onto data packets so data can be routed dynamically or even explicitly across a network to ensure application-specific performance criteria are enforced. High resiliency is supported with features such as explicit failover paths and automated restoration, with fast reroute in 50 milliseconds or less.
  • Converging applications over common infrastructure with IP/MPLS. IP/MPLS enables a secure, reliable common foundation to support legacy and new utility applications. Applications are contained in their own virtual networks each with application-specific quality of service controls and prioritization. Bandwidth may be allocated dynamically to different applications for optimal efficiency. This allows you to converge applications over a common infrastructure that is reliable, predictable and efficient as you reduce capital and operational expenses.
  • Supporting existing teleprotection. Strong teleprotection is critical for utilities because it automatically isolates faults in the grid and keeps people and equipment safe. IP/MPLS is proven to support performance requirements needed for teleprotection, including superior latency while smoothly ensuring performance requirements are met for bandwidth, delay and jitter.
  • Understanding translation between networks. Smart grid data travels from neighborhood networks to field-area networks (FANs) and then, most likely, to MPLS networks. The intersection points are critical; they are where information from one type of technology is translated for another. Different technologies and vendors typically interpret standards differently, which introduces more complexity than found on smaller networks built for one purpose. In the smart grid, it’s critical these translations work properly.
  • Conducting interoperability testing. With all the technologies involved, you must know ahead of time they will work together seamlessly. Interoperability is crucial, which makes testing important during design and deployment. You don’t want to be losing data packets at gateways between technologies.
  • Using technology to the most effective point. It’s often too expensive to run the same technology from a generation station to a home. It’s much more affordable to switch technologies along the way. For example, fiber might be a good choice from generation through transmission, but it’s usually too expensive to deploy throughout the distribution part of the grid. Optimal results often stem from laying fiber to the most economically feasible point and from there using something less expensive, such as wireless.
  • Implementing an end-to-end management strategy. Often, ongoing network management is an afterthought. As utilities increasingly depend on communication networks to achieve business objectives, they introduce a risk to their operations if those assets are not managed and maintained properly. Operation support systems (OSS) have proven themselves in helping manage large, complex networks with limited resources. These solutions enable informed decisions to maximize network uptime and deploy resources efficiently.
  • Implementing security by design. When building a smart grid network, keep security in mind from the beginning. The architecture for a smart grid should include security measures embedded throughout the network. Find the right balance among security, business objectives and network performance. For example, if the encryption method being used causes too much latency, then you’ve secured the data but have decreased the ability for applications to respond in the proper time. That can cause significant issues with control applications. It can be beneficial to bring in an outside expert who can help with network security design.
  • Working with a network integrator. A smart grid communications network typically includes several technologies and vendor systems, both existing and new. Rather than trying to work directly with different vendors, it’s best to work with a single network integrator. That integrator should be able to look at the entirety of your mission and resources to get the most efficiency and quality out of a smart grid deployment. Choose an integrator with experience all the way through the communications infrastructure, from the edge, through the FAN, back to the core network, and into the applications. Because many utilities don’t have this kind of communications experience, this could be one of your most important, beneficial considerations.


Working Together

The End-to-end Smart Grid Communications Network

The smart grid provides a comprehensive solution for the dynamic, complex challenges utilities face. The communications technology for building the required foundation is available. Ensuring it works to optimal capacity means building in that superior level of intimacy with consumers and assets. It’s about carefully designing for integrated, dynamic communications that leverages current assets and provides a proven key enabler for the ongoing smart grid transformation.

Mark Madden is the regional vice president of North American utilities with the strategic industries group at Alcatel-Lucent. Reach him at

Lynn Hunt is the global vice president of utilities with the strategic industries group at Alcatel-Lucent. Reach Hunt at

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