Satellite Communication isn’t Too Exotic for the Smart Grid

By Bob Gohn, Pike Research

Satellite communication has long been used in utility networks to provide connectivity for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and applications such as voice, video and data to remote substation sites that other communications methods cannot reach economically. Despite this history, satellite communication often is viewed as an exotic technology and overlooked as a smart grid communications option.

Satellite communication recently has evolved in improving performance reliability and reducing costs. Satellite networks are now two-way communications systems built on Internet Protocol (IP) with broadband data rates. Next-generation coding standards have made satellite more reliable and cost-efficient. Satellite networking hardware has been engineered to meet next-generation carrier standards, integrating well with terrestrial wireless and wireline communications.

Advances in satellite communications and in particular very small aperture terminal (VSAT) technologies have expanded the range of potential smart grid applications. These systems use small antennas (often less than 1 meter), simpler IP-compatible terminal equipment and better performance than earlier satellite systems. These VSAT solutions provide:

  • Broad geographic coverage, including areas where standard wired and wireless technologies cannot reach. Flexible data rate performance, ranging from 16 kilobytes per second (kbps) suitable for basic SCADA connectivity to speeds of 1 megabit per second (Mbps) and above in support of voice, video and general data applications. Performance often is enhanced further by bandwidth optimization technologies for IP communication, such as user datagram protocol (UDP) header compression.
  • Highly reliable connectivity, suitable for day-to-day operation or as a backup to terrestrial systems during disaster recovery situations.
  • Full IP-based integration with standard wired or wireless terrestrial networking technologies.
  • Lower entry cost as a result of dynamic bandwidth-sharing techniques such as the deterministic time division multiple access (TDMA) technology.
  • Terrestrial-grade service level agreements (SLAs) based on advances in quality-of-service management that allow bandwidth prioritization by user, application, virtual local area network (VLAN), IP address or other identifiers combined with static or dynamic committed information rates (CIR).
  • Data security through the configuration of encrypted private networks, which is necessary for utilities to comply with the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) specifications. Support of multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and VLANs separates different users, applications or both (SCADA vs. generalized data) with their own bandwidth assurances.
  • Protection against weather conditions through adaptive modulation techniques that maintain signal strength during rain or solar events that sometimes occurred with older satellite technologies.

Utilities may build and operate their own private satellite network by leasing dedicated bandwidth from satellite operators such as Intelsat and SES. If deploying many satellite terminals, a self-managed network can be cost-effective. For smaller networks, however, working through a satellite network provider is an attractive alternative because of the bandwidth economies of scale in an existing provider’s larger network deployment.

In addition to supporting sites such as substations and power generation plants, satellite is an increasingly viable option for other smart grid applications, including:

  • Broadband connectivity to remote substations to support video surveillance, and voice and data connectivity to increase security and productivity.
  • Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) backhaul from meter aggregation nodes, especially in more remote, rural areas where other technologies might not be cost-effective.
  • Distribution automation connectivity, ensuring connectivity throughout the service territory.
  • Monitoring and control of remote renewable generation sites, such as solar or wind farm management.
  • Business continuity applications, providing links to backup network operations centers (NOCs) during emergency response or disaster recovery situations.
  • Redundant communications at critical substation and distribution sites to backup terrestrial communications.

“Remote” sites are not necessarily limited to sites in rural or geographically remote locations. Sometimes locations in urban centers have limitations that make standard wired technologies economically unfeasible, including right-of-way access, line-of-sight or interference issues. In these cases, satellite can be a viable option.

Bob Gohn is a senior analyst at Pike Research. This piece is excerpted from “Smart Grid Technologies and the Role of Satellite Communications” available from Pike Research. More information on this paper and other research is available at

Thinking About Smart Grid Intelligence

By Daryl Miller, Lantronix

As the smart grid gains in popularity, embedded technology that enables two-way communications is becoming a key component in extracting data from legacy equipment at the network’s edge. Intelligence can be embedded inside meters or attached externally to equipment. The efficient acquisition of data and control across the network from each isolated point are power industry requirements.

But what is critical to enabling this real-time communications highway? The answer is communications technology embedded in utility meters, distribution substations and other related power equipment. Such technology enables organizations to control entire systems, read meters and allocate power according to need from one central location over the Internet.

As highlighted by Pike Research’s December 2010 smart grid report on 10 trends to watch in 2011, it will be important to keep an eye on communications standards, data management and networking vendors entering the space. Industry standards, including IEEE802.11n, Wi-Fi Enterprise, IEE802.3, ZigBee, IEE802.15.4 and Bluetooth will begin to catch up with deployments, and companies will need to determine which works best. Data management also becomes more difficult as more smart meters are deployed because of the influx of information that must be tracked. All this is leading to utility companies’ looking at their back end databases and business intelligence infrastructure to ensure they can handle the data seamlessly. It’s important to bring together the range of communications hardware and protocols–Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP), Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), Modbus, and Open Smart Grid Protocol (OSGP)–to remotely control and manage the diverse devices on the network and behind firewalls.

The utilities industry recognizes the benefits of IP-based communication. At the substation level, however, there are often compatibility issues with communication hardware as a result of using various vendors. Numerous critical components constitute the smart grid. Capability is complicated further because many components are legacy and not directly smart grid-friendly.

Given this versatility and protocol independence, networking technology can bring together diverse devices on the network. Device server technology can aggregate communications of local interfaces including asynchronous serial, RS-232, RS-485, Bluetooth, ZigBee and digital and analog input/output (IO).

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communications addresses the data issue, as well. It allows for the collection of real-time meter data from legacy equipment, which then can be sent to the utility to interpret and address.

Power-consumption information can be sent via numerous forms over the network, including Ethernet, 802.11, cellular and power line carrier. The challenge occurs when companies with legacy, non-networked equipment want to optimize their investment in existing infrastructure. Using external device servers and embedded modules, organizations can provide serial connectivity for applications, as device servers allow independence from proprietary protocols.

In addition to device servers, M2M technology provides the ability to translate protocols to allow nonroutable protocols to be routed. It also offers options for serial and network connections, including serial tunneling and automatic host connections.

With so much data available, organizations are challenged to gather and process the information effectively and efficiently. Integrating communications technology into one’s existing smart grid deployment enables remote access, control and troubleshooting capabilities for more efficient data acquisition, control, reduced costs and better customer service. It also ensures legacy equipment can be connected to a network. This is a top priority for the utility industry.

Daryl Miller is vice president of engineering at Lantronix.

Explaining the Smart Grid Maturity Model 

Austin Montgomery and David White, Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute

The Smart Grid Maturity Model (SGMM) is one approach many utilities use to assess where they are on the smart grid journey and make systematic decisions about how far and how fast to go.

The SGMM is a management tool that helps utilities plan smart grid implementation, prioritize options and measure progress. Developed for utilities by utilities, the model is hosted by the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University. The SEI is maintaining and evolving the SGMM as a resource for industry transformation with the support of the Department of Energy (DOE) and input from stakeholders.

Utilities use the SGMM to assess their current state of smart grid implementation, define their goals for a future state and generate inputs into their road mapping, planning and implementation processes. Major investor-owned utilities and small public power utilities in the U.S. and around the world have reported finding the model a valuable tool.

Accessing and Applying the SGMM

Applying the model begins with an assessment using the SGMM compass, a survey instrument containing questions corresponding to each characteristic in the model, as well as demographic and performance information. An SGMM assessment yields a maturity rating that represents defined stages of an organization’s progress toward achieving its smart grid vision in automation, efficiency, reliability, integration of alternative energy sources, improved customer interaction, energy and cost savings, and access to new business opportunities and markets. Maturity levels must be viewed in the context of an organization’s business goals and regulatory environment. Achieving a high level in every domain is not necessarily a suitable goal for every organization.

Utilities have two options for conducting an SGMM assessment and using the model: working with an SEI-certified SGMM navigator or completing a self-assessment.

Information about the SGMM, including downloadable model artifacts, guidance on using the model and details on the SGMM navigation program (including becoming a certified SGMM navigator), is available at (See Figure 1 for maturity results.)

User Experiences

SGMM users range from large investor-owned utilities to small municipalities in the U.S. and around the world. Some are pioneers in smart grid implementation; others are just thinking about smart grid. The way in which they use the model differs according to their circumstances, but all have reported benefits from using this community resource.

For utilities that have embarked on a smart grid journey, the SGMM has proven useful to help management take a step back from the day-to-day activity, foster cross-organization discussion and consensus, assess progress and refine plans.

“SDG&E is working hard to realize the benefits of smart grid,” said Lee Krevat, direct of smart grid at San Diego Gas & Electric Co (SDG&E). “Going through the SGMM navigation process with our cross-cutting smart grid team gave us an opportunity to take a step back to share diverse perspectives and take stock of our progress and strategic direction. We look forward to benefiting not just from our own use of the model but to sharing experiences and lessons learned with other utilities in the SGMM community.”

Utilities have done multiple SGMM assessments, using it as a standard to measure their progress and refine their strategy and implementation.

Pepco Holdings Inc. has been involved with the SGMM since its inception, said George Potts, Pepco Holdings vice president of business transformation.

“We recently completed the survey again, using the SGMM navigation process,” Potts said. “This was helpful in fostering candid, fact-based discussion of where we have been, where we are today and where we expect to be in the future. We look forward to using the tool as an integral part of our ongoing planning and transformation process and in measuring our progress.”

For utilities just starting, the SGMM can provide a reference set of community experience and help them establish a smart grid road map and strategy. Some utilities also have used SGMM outputs to communicate with stakeholders about smart grid investment benefits and costs.

To test the applicability of the SGMM to the public power sector, the SEI with the support of the DOE and American Public Power Association conducted a pilot study using the SGMM navigation process with American Municipal Power in Columbus, Ohio, and 22 of its member utilities. The participating utilities found that the SGMM provided a useful common language and framework for discussing smart grid and recommended it for other public power utilities.

American Municipal Power members said the final report offers an objective analysis of their utility; it provides more weight to the results and has created a communication tool they can share with the community to help them leverage support as they set a vision.

Some users have applied the SGMM in national and regional road mapping initiatives. During summer 2010, the Mexican national utility, Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), and the Mexican Energy Ministry, Secretaría de Energía de México (SENER), became the first organizations to apply the SGMM at the national level as an aid in developing a national smart grid road map. CFE is one of the world’s largest utilities, serving 33.9 million customers.

After familiarizing themselves with the SGMM, the CFE-SENER team selected a group from three CFE divisions (representing different regions, load profiles and conditions within Mexico) to participate in an SGMM pilot, thus providing insight at national and regional levels. The CFE team found the process helpful in identifying issues for discussion, providing a baseline for measuring progress and generating valuable inputs into planning.

As of January, some 100 utilities have used the SGMM, representing a cross section of utility types and sizes (see Figure 2). As more utilities around the world participate and the experience base around the SGMM grows, it becomes an increasingly valuable resource to inform the industry’s smart grid transformation.

Austin Montgomery is smart grid program lead for the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute. David White is project manager at the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute and a core member of the development team for the Smart Grid Maturity Model (SGMM).

More PowerGrid International Issue Articles
PowerGrid International Articles Archives
View Power Generation Articles on

Previous articleEVs Are Coming– Are Utilities EV-Ready?
Next articleCalifornia’s Newest Cutting Edge Electricity Legislation Faces Hurdles
The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at

No posts to display