Endless Possibilities: Leveraging AMI Communications Networks to Build Smart Communities

By John Radgowski, Landis+Gyr

Smart grid technology’s ability to improve quality of life for consumers and their communities is no longer an abstract concept. Utilities have the tools to implement smart energy projects today and many have already begun leveraging advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) communications networks for these innovative projects.

The global push toward development of smart energy communities rests on the same foundation utilities already use to modernize daily operations. Reaching this goal involves a systematic examination of the component parts and resources already in use, along with a dedicated process by which new technologies are added to the grid.

On Sept. 14, 2015, the White House announced the formation of a new national nonprofit, Envision America, aimed at bringing together stakeholders to tackle the nation’s challenges in energy, water, waste and air quality. A key component to this initiative is developing best practices for utilities and communities to share, communicate and secure distribution grid and consumer energy usage data to improve efficiency and reduce overall consumption.

The launch of Envision America provides utilities with the opportunity to assert a leadership position in this effort. By using their multi-purpose AMI networks to improve reliability, secure communications and facilitate interoperability, utilities can demonstrate immediate value for their customers and help all players take action on the intelligence and automation these networks provide.

As smart meters, distribution automation sensors, electric vehicles, smart thermostats and other technologies are deployed, utilities and consumers will be able to control energy usage at unparalleled levels. This increase in information and control requires both a focus on security and a greater reliance on analytics engines to meet the goals ahead.

With tens of millions of smart meters and advanced sensing devices already operating on advanced communications networks the opportunity becomes clear: we can leverage AMI network investments to provide new insights into energy usage and improve the quality of life for both the customers and communities within the utility’s service territory.

AMI Networks: The EnableR of Smart Energy Communities

Utilities need to think critically about the types of communication technologies that can provide immediate benefits, as well as the type of communications platform that will be flexible, secure and resilient enough to incorporate new technologies. In addition, strategic planning is required around the integration and interoperability of communication layers to enable better visibility, management and data sharing, as well as determine how and where the different communication layers can be consolidated and integrated.

Multi-purpose AMI networks meet and exceed the requirements for future-ready smart energy projects. As enabling platforms for new grid technologies, multipurpose AMI networks offer more advantages than other networking technologies. AMI networks provide the ability to prioritize messages over other traffic, which is not permissible with cellular or broadband Internet. In fact, data traffic on cellular networks has the lowest priority. And, with broadband Internet, utility traffic is treated the same as any other packets in the network.

As the true enabler of the smart grid, multi-purpose AMI networks provide two-way communication capabilities for moving data from the utility head-end system to endpoints, while managing how that data is used and secured. Some key attributes distinguish AMI networks as the most versatile, secure and interoperable platform for implementing smart energy projects:

  • Regional distribution of assets-RF mesh technology can be regionally distributed, so the operator can target specific areas without needing to deploy infrastructure in areas not being serve. Self-healing architecture-AMI networks communicate through self-healing mesh architecture for built-in reliability. If one module loses communication with the network, the network automatically finds another path to bring communications back to the head-end system. The network operator, therefore, never needs to worry about network performance hinging on a single communication node.
  • Self-forming operation-The network’s intelligence enables communication signals to find the optimal route back to the head-end system. This is particularly important in areas where obstructions, such as mountains or high-rise buildings, can impede transmissions.
  • Interoperable standards-AMI networks incorporate standards-based communications solutions that will assure interoperability, enabling a broad ecosystem of endpoints, communicating grid devices and software applications that can all leverage the data and connectivity of the network.
  • Advanced security-AMI networks can be enabled for advanced end-to-end security, meeting and exceeding even the strictest encryption requirements.
  • Low risk investment-As the smart grid evolves, additional standards will be defined, new applications will emerge and data requirements will expand. To protect the long-term interest of both utilities and customers, AMI networks are designed with ample memory, processing power and platform flexibility for both hardware and software.
  • Cost-effective operation-The versatility of modern AMI networks makes them more cost-effective than the piecemeal communications approaches of the past. And, unlike cellular, additional devices can be added without incurring new monthly data fees, or external troubleshooting costs, as with consumer Wi-Fi networks.

Utilities are Building Smart Energy Communities

Utilities, on their own initiative or in collaboration with their communities, are already using their AMI networks to implement smart energy projects. A smart grid and a smart energy community doesn’t require massive investments or complete integration of every possible component onto the network. It requires the strategic utilization of AMI networks to implement targeted technologies, which can result in immediate benefits to both the community and the utility. The gradual, systematic and collaborative addition of these technologies supports each objective for a smart energy community. There are numerous examples of how this implementation works:

  • Smart thermostats-Advances in load management technology enable utilities to use demand response as a virtual peaking plant, while consumers receive more control to manage their participation in these programs. Utilities such as Baldwin EMC and Colorado Springs Utilities have deployed network-enabled programmable communicating thermostats. Consumers can actively participate in load control programs and take advantage of price incentives to dramatically shave peak energy use. Not only does this technology provide the utility with immediate insights into the amount of load being shed, but consumers can remotely monitor and control their participation using a mobile application.
  • Electric vehicles-Con Edison is using intelligent switches to prepare for more electric vehicles. With this technology, Con Ed is able to monitor, control and respond to signals from charging stations, while using the information to implement a variety of tariffs to support its programs. The network provides a reliable communication path with these load management devices with the data and control necessary to make timely decisions that help reduce peak load and protect distribution infrastructure from overload.
  • Securing critical infrastructure-In conjunction with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and National Grid, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) is using AMI network technology to improve electric power for end-users by managing the interaction of the grid with distributed energy resources. As microgrid management increasingly becomes critical for maintaining reliability and power quality for the distribution grid, utility partnerships with microgrid operators are becoming more common. Intelligent networks provide oversight of capacity and load requirements to balance energy needs and monitor distributed energy resources.

A look into the future sees endless possibilities for building on the foundation AMI networks already provide. They interoperate with technologies that go beyond the grid to assist with managing city infrastructure and water resources. They help automate home energy management and smart appliance operation. In addition, this technology is already proven worldwide to offer a secure and reliable data hub to drive operational and energy efficiency down to the consumer level.

When it comes to building smart communities, recent experience with AMI and intelligent sensor networks demonstrates what can be done. Going forward, utilities have the knowledge to lead this effort. In fact, they already are doing so by implementing the technology that will make interconnected and interoperable communities a reality.

John Radgowski is vice president of Solutions Product Management at Landis+Gyr.


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