Why and how to future-proof your smart grid communications

Why and how to future-proof your smart grid communications

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 revolutionising 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.

Communications networks must also work seamlessly with intelligent edge devices and sophisticated centrally managed software. These characteristics are needed to ensure the many use cases that are evolving can be met with the infrastructures installed, and within the timing and budget constraints that utilities and smart grid stakeholders will most certainly face in the years to come. Critical use cases such as keeping the lights on, monitoring renewables, reducing theft, controlling community lighting, and enabling consumer facing programs such as prepay all through the same networks will require a new level of communication infrastructure sophistication.

Striking the proper balance of what data gets transmitted, how frequently, and to what depth will define the next generation communication solutions. A flexible approach must be embraced as we do not yet fully realize all the use cases which will evolve as we experience generational changes in society, and the expectations of those who use energy, coupled with the rapid technology evolution which is upon us.

Avoiding the single-purpose trap

In the past, many have approached communication networks with a one size fits all mentality, choosing to deploy networks of a single technology and often for a single specific use. With proper focus, sufficient value can often be realized from these networks to achieve a positive return on the investment. However, without proper consideration of the variety of needs which will emerge going forward, a single smart grid network technology for a single purpose will result in significant risk to the network owner. In the future, multiple networks incorporating multiple technologies and serving multiple purposes will be needed to provide maximum value to stakeholders. A key to these networks successfully fulfilling the business case goals for their deployment will be interoperability and the ability to change over time through remote upgrade of not just the firmware of the network devices, but the protocols as well.

Avoiding the proprietary trap

Most smart grid communication networks today tend to be proprietary at many levels of the communication architecture. This proprietary nature creates a barrier to full interoperability. Varying degrees of standardization efforts are underway, but much work remains to fully realize advanced interoperability. To fully realize a more advanced level of interoperability will require more open participation among all industry stakeholders, including energy providers, technology vendors, and users of energy.

In some areas of the world, interoperability is more advanced, and there are lessons to be learned from the experience of the stakeholders in those regions. For example, Europe has a stronger foundation of smart metering interoperability than in the United States. The interface between communications gateways, or concentrators, and meter communication modules is more standardized, simplifying the use of head end systems with multiple network types and various meter types. But even in Europe, additional progress is needed. Nonetheless, Europe provides examples which can be quite useful as we move toward a more interoperable communications model.

Source: Smart Grid News

SMART GRID Bulletin March 2017

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