Grid Automation & Control – Networks vs. Platform

by Donald Pollock, Ambient Corp.

The telecommunication industry and the electricity industry are both more than a century old. Advances in information technology and communications have transformed the telecommunications industry, but the electric grid has not changed much during the past 100 years. One often hears that were Thomas Edison to return today, he probably still would recognize the electric grid. But change is underway. During the past decade, the utility industry has embraced the smart grid, using two-way communication technology and computer processing to add intelligence to devices and processes on the grid.

According to “Smart Grid Networking and Communications,” a September report by Navigant Research, spending on communications for grid automation and control is accelerating as utilities demand more robust networks to support a growing range of applications such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), demand-side management (DSM), distribution monitoring and automation, direct load control and more.

Building the communications platform for increasingly diverse applications is challenging. Keeping pace with advances in technology can be overwhelming. The dilemma for many utilities is to make the right technology investments to guarantee long-term economic, operational and environmental benefits. In addition, there is the need to ensure effective integration with existing assets. Avoiding fragmented, isolated and unconnected systems is paramount to achieve the cost and operational benefits that new technologies promise.

Early smart grid adopters identified challenges and gained significant insights into best practices in deploying smart grid communications systems, according to a June white paper by Ambient Corp. called “The Smart Grid Communications Node in a Distributed Intelligence Grid Architecture.” It suggests an approach that emphasizes systemwide common architectures capable of pushing data collection, analysis and application to the edge of the utility network while leveraging multiple communications technologies. This approach can maximize value by:

  • Reducing the cost of implementation, communications and operations;
  • Delivering network visibility and control;
  • Providing for new applications and technology through a flexible foundation; and
  • Incorporating and extending the value of legacy assets.

The approach goes against the traditional norm for grid modernization of deploying disparate systems independent of one another and, in most cases, managed independently of one another.

Key factors distinguish the traditional siloed approach to grid communications from a platform approach: flexibility, scalability and security.


Flexibility defines the ability of the grid to deliver safe, reliable service in an increasingly dynamic environment: from generation through distribution to consumption. It was identified in the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 as an important characteristic of a smart grid. The EISA called for a grid that:

  • Is “flexible, uniform and technology neutral, including but not limited to technologies for managing smart grid information;”
  • “Accommodates traditional, centralized generation and transmission resources and consumer distributed resources;” and
  • Is “flexible to incorporate regional and organizational differences, and technological innovations.”

These principles are vital to ensure the emergence of an efficient grid in a dynamic context. In practice, that means a smart grid should be a system of interoperable systems—not siloed networks.

Interoperability starts at the communications layer. The development of a robust, Internet Protocol (IP)-based communications architecture facilitates end-to-end, two-way flow of information. IP provides a common communication protocol that enables utilities to deploy different technologies on different parts of the grid while being able to control and manage data through a unified system. The use of a common IP-based communications architecture or “platform” provides the foundation for a robust, flexible and scalable smart grid.


Flexible gridwide connectivity is a prerequisite to building a smarter grid, but it also potentially creates a problem: lots of data. As technology advances, more devices will add to the volume of data generated.

To improve business outcomes, managing the data deluge will be vital. A network infrastructure that incorporates local computing to empower decision-making at the edge of the network, in addition to centralized control, will save time and cost and will enable the network to scale to support the addition of future applications. A distributed architecture allows utilities to understand their operations at a more granular level, which enables more targeted operational decisions and more efficient operation. Incorporating local computing to empower decision-making at the edge of the network offers faster response to changing grid or market requirements. A grid architecture that enables distributed intelligence provides:

  • Real-time monitoring and analysis on data collected at the edge;
  • Reduction of large volumes of raw data to smaller amounts of manageable and usable data;
  • The ability to select specific types or subsets of data to be backhauled to central systems;
  • The collection of data only on exceptions determined by utility-configured thresholds;
  • The reduction in communication costs associated with transporting data back to a central data warehouse; and
  • The optimization of data warehouse storage costs.

The Node: key enabler of a platform approach. A purpose-built, modular, IP-based network device—the smart grid node—installed at various points on the grid to perform data collection, aggregation and management is the key enabler of a platform approach to grid communications. This node, (see figure) specifically designed to support utility communications, can be configured to serve different roles simultaneously within a network.

Node-based Smart Grid Communications Platform

Node-based Smart Grid Communications Platform

Other benefits of using a node-based architecture include:

  • Multiple communications, applications. The node delivers upstream and downstream high-speed data communications using wired and wireless technologies, including cellular, power line communications (PLC), Wi-Fi, radio frequency (RF) or combinations of these protocols. It allows utilities to mix and match connections to grid endpoints such as electric meters, gas meters and sensors by leveraging the modularity of a single piece of hardware.
  • Distributed intelligence. Data collection, aggregation, analysis, monitoring and communication between endpoints and their appropriate central systems can be enabled locally at the node.
  • Flexibility. Third-party applications and devices can be integrated into the node easily. This means the utility does not require a separate, single-purpose communication network to serve each new application.
  • Future-proofing. The node can be upgraded remotely to incorporate new applications and analytics and to integrate other smart grid devices and functions as they are deployed on the grid. In addition, endpoint devices can be upgraded using the communications and applications platform.

A node-based communications and applications platform incorporates the best principles of security, scalability and flexibility to support the integration of multiple technologies and multiple applications.


Information technologies enable a smarter grid but the networked technologies required to realize the potential benefits of a modern grid also add complexity and introduce interdependencies and vulnerabilities. Approaches to secure these technologies and protect privacy must be integral to the design and implementation of smart grid programs and devices.

Three fundamental design principles are incorporated in the definition, design and development of the platform approach to grid communications and the devices and software deployed:

  • Availability: to prevent disruptions and loss, providing reliable operation.
  • Integrity: to stop unauthorized modifications through proper and secure access controls.
  • Confidentiality: to protect data delivery and prevent unwanted disclosure.

Adopting an open and standards-based platform approach reduces reliance on proprietary solutions and avoids vendor lock-in. It also provides the opportunity to develop a single schema to secure data from multiple devices, strengthening the overall security approach.

Donald Pollock is global vice president of sales and marketing at Ambient Corp. He has a Bachelor of Science from Edinburgh University.

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