Eight questions for utilities considering a fiber-optic based communication system

By Thilo Janssen, BEC and Mike Edmonds, S&C

Every year, customer expectations for reliable electrical service continue to rise as the dependence on reliable electric service grows. Yes, the existing grid was designed decades before personal computers and internet networks were conceptualized. While the equipment selected to protect the grid of the past did a fine job meeting customer needs, those needs are changing, and so too must utilities’ approach to reliability.

One of the most common tactics utilities are pursuing to improve their reliability and overall power delivery is the integration of advanced protection equipment to replace conventional devices. These “smart” solutions can respond to temporary faults and automatically restore power. Shifting to these advanced solutions dramatically improves customer satisfaction, reduces the duration and frequency of outages, and simultaneously benefits a utility’s bottom line by reducing unnecessary operations and maintenance costs.

Moving technology closer to the customer to improve reliability and resilience is key. One aspect of these devices that isn’t frequently touched on is their communication capabilities. Conventional protection devices may have had a built-in operation counter, but that data could only be collected manually. In the 21st century, many of the advanced protective devices on the market come equipped with built-in communication options to make data collection, device coordination, and remote operation possible with the click of a mouse from miles away. The challenge here is our aging grid wasn’t designed with these smart solutions, or advanced communication needs, in mind.

To navigate the changing times, many utilities are turning to fiber-optic connections to serve as the backbone of their communication systems. Because fiber-optic systems allow information to transfer from one device to another more reliably, over longer distances, and at quicker speeds, looped fiber-optic networks are an ideal solution for networks that cover long distances. When utilities are building new infrastructure, it is easy to add fiber-optics to the plan, but retrofitting fiber-optics to existing systems can be more challenging.  

BEC takes on the challenge

Retrofitting for fiber is challenging, but not impossible. Bandera Electric Cooperative (BEC) located in Bandera, Texas, also known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World” in the hills country just west of San Antonio, prides itself on being a leader in the electric utility sector. BEC says it is constantly studying, evaluating, and implementing new technology to further improve its electricity delivery system to best serve customers. When BEC decided to prove out fiber-optic communication on its existing system, the utility worked with S&C Electric Company to ensure this new communication network would properly pair with it. 

It’s important the utilities understand that questions must be answered, and details must be coordinated before undergoing a fiber-optics installation. It’s not as easy as plug-and-play.

AT S&C we believe that fiber-optics represent the future for utility communications, and sharing resources and experiences early on will make the transition easier for everyone. The project team at BEC worked with S&C to develop the following list of questions and considerations to evaluate before adding fiber-optics to an existing system:

1. How will the fiber-optic transceiver be powered?

Existing electronic controls may not have the necessary room or availability for proper power supply and backup battery power. External transformers and enclosures can be used, but it is advantageous to have controls pre-equipped with the proper power source and adapters.

2. How will the fiber-optics physically connect to the device, and what style of connector does the equipment require?

The use of weatherproof connectors and strain relief are necessary to ensure the connection works as expected for years to come. Pre-installed connectors make field-installation simpler and with fewer field errors.

Commonly used utility fiber-optic connector types are LC, SC, and ST, but adapters are readily available to support systems if existing connectors and equipment are not compatible. Each type of adaptor has specific advantages depending on the equipment they support. Determining your equipment needs and researching available adapters in advance is recommended.

3. Are the fiber-optic transceivers in the equipment single-mode or multi-mode?

Ordering the right transceiver type is a critical step. Two types of transceivers are available: multi-mode and single-mode. Multi-mode transceivers are designed for shorter distances and are typically available for a lower cost. The core of a multi-mode transceiver is larger and more adaptable to various connectors used throughout the system. Single-mode transceivers have a smaller core and come with more focused light transfer, which is designed for longer distances.

4. How far will the transceiver need to push the light to the next transceiver?

Typical distances available for fiber-optic transceivers are 550 meters and 1.24, 6.21, 18.64, and 37.38 miles. Make sure the transceivers planned to join the system can manage anticipated requirements before you make a purchase.

5. What optical transmission wavelengths are needed for the equipment?

The three primary wavelengths for fiber-optic transmission are 850, 1300, and 1550 nanometers. Wavelengths need to match across all equipment. If the transceiver is designed to run with a 1300-nm wavelength, but the substation is set for 1550 nm, the fiber-optic communication will not be able to travel back and forth between the two.

6. Does the desired transceiver match the speed of the equipment?

Modern reclosers typically handle communications at 100 Mbps. Equipment in the substation where most utilities route their fiber-optics may communicate at 1 Gbps. Matching the speed or using equipment that can auto-navigate 10, 100, or 1000 Mbps speed is necessary. In addition, basic IT knowledge about IP addressing will be needed to make a working fiber-optic path communicate correctly.

7. Can you keep all members of the procurement team on the same page?

A fiber-optics installation has many moving parts including design, procurement, and installation. It’s important for all members of the project to be communicating with each other so equipment requirements meet the limitations of existing equipment and don’t cause unnecessary stress and delays on the system by getting it wrong the first time. 

8. Is the team collaborating with an experienced integrator to ensure the project moves smoothly?

Choosing a solutions provider whose products are compatible with fiber-optic connections and who has experience in retrofitting existing systems will make the transition to fiber-optics easier, get equipment online faster, and save operations and installation costs along the way.

The future of the grid relies on utilities’ willingness to pursue advanced technology to improve performance and overall reliability. Thinking through these questions before adding fiber-optics to an existing system will help ensure that future installations for utilities around the world will go as smoothly as possible.




About the Authors

Mike Edmonds is Chief Commercial Officer at S&C Electric Company. In this position, Edmonds is responsible for business development, customer support, and sales growth worldwide. Before joining S&C in April 2010, Mike was Vice President & General Manager of the Siemens USA Energy Automation group, where he was responsible for the real-time solutions business for energy management systems, market systems, substation automation, and protection control. Edmonds’ previous roles include VP & GM for PTI, whose products and services serve 130 countries in system planning, including early adoption and endorsement of the common information model.


Thilo Janssen is Manager of Engineering at Bandera Electric Cooperative (BEC) where he is responsible for the coordination of all aspects of the Engineering/Technical/Systems Planning department. Additional duties include the development and deployment of distribution automation, providing engineering guidance to ancillary business lines including solar, energy storage, and other emerging technologies.

He joined BEC in January 2017 as a Distribution Engineer, changed positions in January 2019 to Principal Engineer for Emerging Technologies. He earned both a Bachelor and Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas at San Antonio. Before pursuing his second career at BEC, he was a Major in the German Air Force. Janssen flew more than 2,500 hours on the F-4F Phantom as part of the Fighting Wing 71 “Richthofen”. He instructed many flying crews as Fighter Weapons Instructor (Air Force Top Gun) in his function as director of combat training.

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