Intelligent Communications for a Dynamic Smart Grid

by Scott Allen, FreeWave Technologies

The emergence of smart grid has created a dynamic electric power environment that is allowing utilities to meet profitability numbers and ensure their customers have reliable power. Smart grid technologies have enabled many utilities to provide that reliable power with an aging transmission and distribution infrastructure, even during periods of peak demand.

Powerful communication technology is key to ensuring effective grid operations. Smart grid communications infrastructure must be not only flexible and reliable, but also capable of intelligent command and control. In addition, it must be able to capture data and leverage intelligence at the edge of the network. Utility operators, therefore, should enlist solutions that are cost-effective and minimally invasive, while being sophisticated enough to handle a dynamic distributed power environment.

To do this most efficiently, companies are increasingly turning toward industrially hardened Internet of Things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) networking technologies. As utility operators continue to look for ways to improve their transmission and distribution networks, wireless M2M communications is a critical component because it can be installed quickly, lowers operational costs, enables high data throughput, and secures end-to-end data transport. To achieve these benefits, data networks must be aligned to specific and ranging grid requirements (generation, transmission, distribution and consumption).

Electric utilities are at the forefront of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) with complex and comprehensive wireless networks for advanced metering infrastructure, energy management, distribution automation and substation automation. In its report titled “Transforming Industries: Energy and Utilities” published in 2014, Ericsson estimated that the growth in IIoT applications for utilities and energy industries will lead to an increase from 485 million devices in 2013 to more than 1.5 billion devices by 2020.

Smart Grid Network Needs

A smart grid is designed to route electricity from the generation source to the consumer in the most efficient way possible. The distribution network must enable reliable and secure command and control, monitoring of transformers, substations, capacitor banks and more, and intelligent control over power grid functions to the distribution level and beyond (via distribution automation). In addition, the communication infrastructure should allow the utility to monitor and control load shifting.

Wireless IIoT and M2M communications technologies can improve data transmission and process control, as well as help establish intelligent control of processes that were traditionally manual. For example, with advanced communication technology, recloser control can be re-routed across the grid to bypass problem areas and ensure efficient operations. In addition, wireless networking solutions have been highly effective in situations where:

“- Remote monitoring of service delivery is required;

“- Maintenance crews need remote Wi-Fi capabilities;

“- Data and network security is a priority;

“- AMI and AMR efficiency is needed;

“- Utility operators need a viable solution to meet their distribution automation requirements, while also ensuring maximum efficiency and network security protocols.

Wireless Network Overview

To understand how a wireless M2M network works, it’s necessary to know how it is created. In most cases, a wireless networking platform consists of transmitters, receivers and transceivers that communicate with each other using radio waves over various spectrums. (In many solutions frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology is used.) A true smart grid communications network is mostly comprised of fixed locations with a radio connected to a remote terminal unit (RTU), programmable logic controller (PLC), substation computer or other intelligent device. Oftentimes, input/output (I/O) devices are installed in the wireless network to communicate to a central location where the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) network and telemetry is monitored and controlled.

Wireless data communications are critical to supporting time-sensitive distribution automation applications. At the distribution automation layer, many critical functions and actions are automated, such as monitoring critical feeders and fault detection, isolation and restoration applications to reduce the duration and impact of outages; supporting load shifting between sources to help avoid or alleviate overload conditions; controlling capacitor banks and more. When all of the pieces of a wireless network are properly placed and used, operators and utility customers will experience many benefits.

The Wireless Edge

IIoT networks transport vast volumes of information from a myriad of monitoring and control applications that enable smart grids-the “glue” that holds, binds and delivers power dynamically to end users. Operators depend upon M2M networking platforms every day for mission critical applications in a variety of industrial settings, such as oil and gas, electric power, water/wastewater and agriculture. These technologies often are deployed in harsh and sometimes hazardous environments, withstanding the elements to provide effective, secure and efficient solutions.

Wireless communication technologies enable greater flexibility than many other smart grid communication technologies, like buried cable. Wireless infrastructures are easily expanded or adjusted based on the individual utility’s needs. In addition, utilities can now securely enable historical data logging at the edge of their IT network for greater intelligence in the distribution networks.

While IIoT and M2M technologies do not necessarily have to be wireless to achieve a connected infrastructure, wireless does have advantages. Wireless M2M systems are easier to install than fiber. Cable must be buried from the point of measurement or control to the process controller, but this is not required with wireless. Wireless also achieves higher measurement accuracy by taking measurements at the signal source. The costs associated with repairing or replacing a damaged buried cable can add up quickly. Many wireless M2M technologies, on the other hand, are relatively maintenance-free. If maintenance does become necessary, wireless systems can be easily maintained and, once installed, the industry leading wireless M2M communication devices rarely need any type of service or replacement. If at some point maintenance does become necessary, the top-tier systems typically provide data regarding a pending maintenance concern along with the location of the potential issue. Operators also can identify the type of maintenance required, which can easily be detected remotely. This reduces maintenance man hours because operators need only to send someone out for service if and when it’s needed, leading to significant time and money savings. If engineered and installed correctly, wireless M2M platforms will last maintenance-free for years. In addition, some wireless IIoT and M2M communications manufacturers provide backwards-compatible solutions, which will save on stocking and replacement costs.

In addition to the reliability and cost advantages, the security benefits from the appropriate wireless technologies help ensure that critical infrastructure is protected.

Network security is enhanced with proprietary FHSS wireless technologies that have been proven to protect mission-critical data from denial of service (DoS) attacks, interception of data traffic and even intrusion into networks. Furthermore, security is enhanced through encryption, which assures that only the intended recipient can decode and view the data, even in the event that the transmission is intercepted. Wireless data radio providers must be closely aligned with federal requirements from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Enhanced security measures provide the network with several layers of security, not only keeping unwarranted users from gaining access to the network itself, but also keeping the data safe while in transit.

The New I/O

Highly flexible wireless I/O options that leave operators more choice and flexibility in building out their wireless network are available today. A smart grid infrastructure that uses wireless I/O for its M2M network can cover and control operations from a few feet to hundreds of miles away. This type of technology is easily integrated into a larger wireless SCADA network to connect the corporate office with the field controllers, process measurements and control points. Some wireless I/O technologies also offer over-the-air configuration changes and upgrades, which, once again, cut down on the physical management that cables require.

Some I/O solutions are offered with expandability options. These providers enable an extremely high density of I/O. An operator with a small budget and modest communication goals can initially set up a small set of I/O points and add to its I/O count as the system grows, and this can be done at any time. For example, if government mandates changes that require more monitoring, the expandable I/O technology is a cost-effective way to meet requirements without a complete communications overhaul. In addition, if new process automation technologies require more points for monitoring and control for higher process output, expandable I/O can easily accommodate the requirement.

New and improved I/O technologies allow electric power utilities to incorporate process optimization and condition-based monitoring application solutions for components within their system that were previously deemed manual-only methods. This means that a utility should expect fewer outages and faster recovery times.


IIoT and M2M communications allow utilities to cost-effectively create and operate smart grids that achieve intelligent control, precise measurement and dependable communication. Automation allows utility operators to make electricity generation, transmission and distribution more efficient, cost-effective and reliable. Like with other process-dependent industries, it is increasingly rare to see processes that rely solely on human decisions and manual interaction in the electric power industry. Relying on human judgment and reactions introduces variability in reliability, timeliness and quality. From a customer’s perspective, variability in these areas is perceived as quality reduction. From the organization’s perspective, variability creates challenges in growing revenue and limiting expenses.

Data communications are critical to supporting time-sensitive and mission-critical smart grid applications. While there are many of different data communication technology options available today, certain wireless technologies are gaining in popularity due to their ease of deployment and long-term cost savings.


Scott Allen is the chief marketing officer at FreeWave Technologies. Prior to joining FreeWave, Allen served as an executive consultant with SolarWinds, where he led the creation of customer marketing strategies and success measurements. Allen also served in management roles at several other technology companies earlier in his career. Along with his executive leadership experience, he has led marketing development efforts at several start-ups. Allen earned a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems from Weber University.


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