Communication is Key

Enabler for the Digital Utility Transformation

Emma Ritch, ABB Wireless

The industrial sector is becoming a vital proving ground for the many benefits promised by the Internet of Things (IoT). Utilities are deploying thousands of new intelligent endpoints to support a growing list of applications.

Limitations in many communication networks, however, are preventing utilities from garnering the greatest benefits of smart grid technologies. Still too many utility projects use a dedicated communication network for a single application or territory. This results in missed opportunities for cost savings to leverage common infrastructure. It also causes increased burdens on the network operators and IT professionals tasked with keeping the networks available and secure.

Utilities can unlock massive business value by integrating IT and OT teams. The solution to gaining the full benefits from smart grid is long-term planning for the communication infrastructure to support today’s applications today and those that will come over the next 20 years. The most cost-effective approach to meeting variations in network capacity, latency and resiliency is to enable interoperability by leveraging multiple types of communication technologies, distributed intelligence and industry standards.

Communication is the key enabler for the digital utility transformation. Industrial-grade, multi-application networks provide the best return on smart grid investment. As utilities look to do more by deploying larger numbers of devices and collecting new data points, they are learning from early adopters and demanding more from their communication networks.

Following are five trends shaping the types of communication solutions that utilities are choosing today:

1. Worldwide Growth in Smart Grid-Connected Devices

Utilities are benefiting from greater market trends that have reduced the cost of connecting devices and improved the performance of these solutions. This can make getting financial support for projects easier, as well as increase the number and type of communicating devices on the network. Utilities already have more experience than most industrial vertical segments with distributed IoT-connected devices, and this trend is expected to continue. Global consulting and research firm Analysys Mason, for example, predicts utilities will account for 67 percent of overall machine-to-machine (m2M) connections worldwide by 2023.

A couple of engineering principles explain why connected devices are expected to increase so quickly. Moore’s law describes the trend of chip performance doubling every 18 months thanks to increases in the number and speed of transistors. The continued improvement in processing power improves intelligent electronic device (IED) performance and cost, enabling utilities to put more IEDs in the field.

Metcalfe’s law explains that the value of a network grows in proportion to the number of connected users. Translated to utility applications, this can be applied to mean that connecting just one device-such as a transformer voltage monitor-would produce minimal benefits in terms of power quality monitoring. Connecting multiple voltage sensors at different points between the distribution substation and customer’s smart meter, however, delivers more value to the utility and the customer by providing a more accurate look at performance throughout the service territory. Additional sensor monitoring for other conditions that could impact power quality, such as power factor, current, frequency and demand, would then provide an even richer view into the conditions of the network.

Together, Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws make it cheaper, easier and more valuable for utilities to deploy IEDs to serve a growing number of smart grid applications. This can greatly increase the workload for IT departments tasked with managing and maintaining connectivity to these IEDs. It can also produce vast amounts of additional data to store and manage. Utilities must consider, therefore, the eventual growth in the number of connected devices when making long-term plans for communication networks; otherwise, today’s networks may not be scalable to meet their future needs.

2. Diversity of Applications

The first wave of utility smart grid networks began roughly 10-15 years ago. At that time, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) projects typically came first and thus drove the requirements for field-area networks (FANs). As utilities eventually began to deploy additional and more mission-critical applications, they found their AMI networks unsuitable for the bandwidth, latency and reliability requirements. For those reasons, AMI networks by default became mostly single-purpose solutions.

Some utilities chose to build or buy access to additional networks to serve substation automation, distribution automation, feeder automation or mobile workers. Others have chosen to replace or phase out their single-purpose networks before the end of their useful life in the field in order to build a more comprehensive solution. In either case, shortfalls in planning that led to application-specific, siloed networks resulted in redundant equipment, operational inefficiencies and greater burden on network operators who must be trained on multiple proprietary management systems.

Multi-application networks provide the best return on a utility’s smart grid communications investment. It’s essential to take a long-term view of smart grid use cases to develop a network plan that will meet the needs of new applications and connected devices over the next five, 10 or 20 years. A comprehensive network infrastructure should be scalable and extensible, enabling interoperability with the greatest number of devices and technologies possible. A multi-application network offers many benefits to utilities:

  • Better return on investment
  • Lower operating costs as a result of standardizing on fewer hardware and software products
  • Central network management to increase reliability
  • Ability to enforce consistent security and quality of service.

3. Diversity of Technologies

Communications requirements vary greatly among smart grid applications. The communications technologies used for AMI deliver sufficient capacity for meter reading, but many can’t support network requirements for streaming usage data or additional smart grid applications. Utilities have been demanding more of their AMI networks, such as collecting more data points from a meter or moving to real-time, streaming consumption data. The networks built 10 years ago are showing their age, struggling to meet demands for more data points collected with increased frequency, and falling short of the latency and bandwidth requirements of mission-critical distribution automation (DA) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Diversity in technologies enables utilities to meet different needs. For many utilities, that includes using fiber connections to substations, data centers, power plants, and wireless connectivity for tens of thousands of new devices in a FAN. Modern wireless FANs provide reliable and secure two-way communication for applications such as AMI, feeder automation, outage management, voltage regulation and integration of distributed energy resources (DERs). In looking at the requirements of these different applications, it’s clear there is no one-size-fits-all solution to meet needs for latency, reliability, bandwidth and security, especially when there is diversity in variables, such as population density, service territory size, topology and budget.

Public cellular networks are a complementary solution to private wireless connectivity, but are rarely used alone for smart grid networks due to cost, reliability and security concerns (Figure 2). In addition, utilities have limited control over the timing of planned network outages or technology retirement, and the public carrier schedule may not coincide with what’s best for the utility. Utilities are already being affected by this, as cellular carriers in the U.S. are planning to sunset 3G cellular technology by the end of 2019. This will require utilities to purchase 4G (or 5G) network cards and change-out or replace equipment in the field ahead of devices’ useful life.


4. Network Management

Networking solutions are frequently deployed to serve a single project or application, leaving utilities with numerous wireless networks to manage different groups of connected devices. Utilities are beginning to feel the pain of operating numerous siloed networks. The result is an overworked, under-resourced and inefficient IT department managing numerous networks for different groups of devices.

A best practice for utilities is to identify and implement networking solutions that leverage a single management application for multiple communication technologies, multiple vendors and multiple applications. Network element management solutions should also empower the utility to establish prioritization for different applications and types of events. By doing so, the standard meter-reading traffic does not compromise the delivery of an alert for a critical failure that could result in outages or injuries.

5. Security Protection

Cybersecurity threats are on the rise and will continue to evolve over time. It is, therefore, critical for utilities to adopt standards and best practices such as IP that incorporate device-level encryption and authentication. As the large-scale Denial-of-Service (DoS) attack on U.S. IoT devices in late 2016 illustrated, there are hackers worldwide looking for vulnerabilities in newly connected m2M devices.

In addition, many physical attacks on substations highlight the need for utilities to execute substation resiliency assessments and take the necessary steps to ensure secure operations. To help utilities reach their substation security and resiliency goals, operation managers are deploying smarter physical defenses that work hand-in-hand with a reliable and secure communications network, shoring up substation defenses, decreasing reaction times and getting back online faster.

So much of substation operations and monitoring relies on electronic communications. Wireless networks offer many advantages over wired networks and are preferred by utilities because they are much easier and more cost-effective to deploy in substations as they require no trenching.


Utilities are beginning to take a modern approach to communications planning. Architecting networks from end-to-end requires using the right technologies to meet the needs of applications, topographies, throughput and reliability. By planning for future needs of the network and future applications, projects are an incremental spend instead of a standalone project. Moreover, by executing a comprehensive approach to managing networks, utilities can now leverage a single network management system for connected endpoints. This communications strategy gives utilities a clear advantage as they can make real-time decisions. They also can create opportunities for future applications and growth using the same network. This advantage translates into increased efficiency, reliability, security and reduced costs.

Volume of Device Connections Continues to Increase

Utilities have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of wireless device connections deployed and connected to many applications. Analysts agree this volume is only getting larger:

“- 600 million smart meters were installed globally at the end of 2016, representing approximately 30 percent of electricity customers. By 2025, this will grow to 1.2 billion smart meters and 53 percent of metering endpoints, according to Navigant Research.

“- The global number of devices managed by utilities is projected to grow from 485 million in 2013 to 1.53 billion in 2020, according to ZPryme.

“- By 2020, utilities will be the biggest user of the 25 billion devices that will be connected to IoT, says Gartner.

Keys to Successful Smart Grid Communication Networks

There are several essential specifications that utilities should look for in wireless field-area network solutions to meet the needs of the most common utility applications:

“- Reliability

“- 99.99 percent uptime available, leveraging self-healing mesh network design and distributed intelligence where beneficial

“- Industrial grade IP67 weatherproof, shock proof, vibration proof

“- Rated at -40 C to 75 C temperature down to the component level

“- Performance

“- Broadband mesh technology 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz for throughput where 600 Mbps total wireless data rate is needed

“- Standards-based; e.g., IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n

“- Low latency crucial for distribution automation at 1ms per hop

“- Security

“- Full AES encryption, IPsec VPNs to wired clients

“- Firewall in every device

“- IEC 61850 GOOSE messaging

“- Standards-based IP security, technical controls needed to achieve NERC-CIP compliance

“- Manageability

“- Management of fault, configuration, accounting, performance, security

“- Standards-based management system across multiple communication technologies

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