Why and how to future-proof your smart grid communications



I'm pleased to present this guest contribution from Elster's Ron Pate because it has some timely reminders. For one thing, Ron makes the point that, more than a decade into the smart grid transformation, we are still in the early days. Yes, we've undergone some changes, but nothing like the changes on the way.


Once that sinks in, then you'll realize the importance of his advice on how to future-proof the communications network(s) that are at the heart of every smart grid project. In his view (and I agree), utilities will be much better prepared for the future if they specify communications networks that are:

·      Multi-layered

·      Multi-purpose

·      Multi-interoperable


There's much more, and much more detail, in Ron's remarks below.  - Jesse Berst


By Ron Pate


The evolution of smart grid communications infrastructure

Even with the level of intelligence already deployed in electric grids today, much of the grid still looks very much as it did a century ago.  With recent acceleration in industrial-grade technology advances, coupled with significant learnings from a decade of initial smart grid technology investments, that is about to change.


In the next two decades we will see the beginnings of unprecedented change revolutionizing the way we consume and manage vital resources, including electrical energy.  It is the use of information, enabled by much more advanced communications and communicating intelligent devices, which plays a large part in making this a reality.


New communications for a new kind of grid

Ensuring successful evolution of the grid, enabling the powering of the grid and ultimately empowering its users, will require a new breed of communications infrastructure. The successful migration to this new breed of communications infrastructure will require a more solutions-oriented approach, driven with consumer benefits in mind, as contrasted with an almost "technology for technology's sake” approach so often used in past decisions.


Certain characteristics of communications networks of the future must be taken into account as plans are implemented to realize the grid of the future. Networks need to be multi-layered, multi-purpose, and multi-dimensionally interoperable. And devices will need to include multiple types of communications capabilities, as no single communication network will cost-effectively or operationally meet all specific needs of the future grid.

Embracing multi-layer networks

Not only must networks be designed with upgradeability and interoperability in mind, but as no single network will fill all needs at the most optimal cost-benefit mix, an approach to deploying multi-layered networks must also be embraced.


For example, very low latency (high speed) networks are needed to enable advanced transmission or critical distribution switching and control, whereas slower, less expensive networks are more appropriate for consumer applications, metering, and lower scale service delivery point monitoring applications. There are other use cases that need to happen so quickly that proper intelligence must be built into the device itself, and the communication system is used to transmit the state change rather than centrally transmitting a control signal.


Additionally, emerging use cases, such as smart city applications, require multi-layered architectures. Residential passive device control could use lower speed networks as are used for metering applications, whereas community Wi-Fi would require much higher speed networks, more in line with those used for grid control. It will be essential to deploy appropriate technologies so that the technologies can not only co-exist, but can seamlessly communicate with one another to fulfill the constantly growing use cases of today and tomorrow.


Making the right business decisions

In addition to multiple networks deployed together with multi-dimensional interoperability, networks will also be deployed in different manners, and in many cases will be deployed incrementally over time. When deploying networks, solid business decisions must be made which allow rapid realization of value from the investment, and which minimize operational disruption to the utility or service provider in the deployment of the technology. As older technologies reach a point of functional obsolescence, incremental change from older networks will be required.


Therefore, when considering newer network technologies, utilities or other network owners should look for ways to incrementally shift from the old to the new. For example, in the case of utilities with legacy AMR walk-by or drive-by meter reading technologies, a migration path from walk-by or drive-by to fixed network, which allows a controlled transition from one to the other, would be a way to minimize operational disruption while embracing newer capabilities to position the utility for the digital future.


In summary, a fresh solutions-oriented approach is needed by organizations deploying networks and by technology vendors creating the networks of the future. This approach should be based on use cases, with consideration of not only today’s needs but those of the future as well. Technology will be chosen based on its value today and its ability to adapt to the emerging needs of the future. Networks will be multi-layered, multi-purpose, and will be upgradeable to more interoperable models as future interoperability standards emerge. It’s an exciting future, and as an industry we must embrace it!


Ron Pate is the Head of Solutions and Product Management for Elster's Electricity Business Unit.