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Data Communications and The Revolution in the U.S. Electric Grid

By 3p Contributor


By Stewart Kantor

The U.S. electric grid is one of the largest and most complicated machines ever created. Throughout most of its 140-year history, the grid’s electrons have flowed in one direction -- from centralized and often distant power plants to the end utility customer. However, with the widespread adoption of renewables like solar and wind and with advances in battery storage technology, there is a revolution underfoot in which each utility customer has the potential to become its own mini-power plant and a supplier of electricity.

Utilities refer to these new sources of electricity as distributed energy resources or DER. The modern utility is now challenged to balance the need to deliver consistent and reliable electricity -- historically generated from fossil fuel-based coal- and natural gas-fired powers plants -- while maximizing the use of less consistent and more intermittent forms of cleaner, decentralized generation. A good place to start in addressing this challenge is with the implementation of an advanced field-data communications network capable of monitoring and controlling every portion of the grid from the distribution substation all the way to the 'smart' solar inverter at a customer’s home. These new networks are distinct from the smart-meter networks that were implemented over the past few years, which were designed primarily for collecting non-mission critical billing data.

The distributed energy revolution has already begun with electrons flowing back into the grid from one utility customer to another. 'Smart utilities' are exploring the requirements to fully integrate these intermittent and less predictable forms of generation as seamlessly as possible. A new, modern, efficient grid that relies heavily on renewables poses a tremendous technical, economic and political challenge to the utility. Yet, it is this challenge that the utility company along with its regulators, investors and customers need to face head on. To do otherwise is to put the company, the grid and all of us at risk. Not unlike how Uber has served to undermine the economics of the taxicab industry within a relatively brief period of time, the adoption of renewables and storage poses a similar threat to the utility industry.

In order to begin the process of managing the new grid, each utility company requires an advanced field data communications network capable of managing, in real-time, millions of active intelligent devices. The list of devices is already long and getting longer every day. It includes devices such as voltage sensors and regulators, transformers and new grid functions for renewables like smart inverters collocated at solar arrays.

The utility cannot simply rely on commercial wired or wireless LTE networks for connectivity to these devices for a number of reasons. The utility company’s data needs are substantially different from most consumer and commercial data networks. Security is of utmost importance in order to minimize the potential of cyber-vandalism (e.g. denial of service attacks) or even worse, cyber-terrorism. Utilities also require ubiquitous coverage throughout their service territory, given they are focused on covering grid assets in addition to population centers.

Commercial wireless carriers are almost exclusively focused on population centers and have de-prioritized new or expanded coverage. These new utility networks require pulling a vast amount of data simultaneously from thousands of remote intelligent endpoints distributed along the grid. Commercial network providers design their networks for high capacity downstream traffic with severe restrictions on upstream capacity. Network latency, or the time it takes data packets to move from one location to another, needs to be minimal and consistent for critical utility applications, in some cases requiring latency less than 10 milliseconds. Commercial networks can have high latencies along with tremendous variability in latency.

Network availability is another critical element where utilities need to design for very high reliability, when other communications networks are down. Commercial providers continue to have major periods of disruption during man-made and natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy where a large percentage of cell towers were unavailable for an extended period of time. All of these requirements combined create a need for a new kind of network – a private cellular data network – for grid optimization.

Private cellular data networks are owned and operated by the utility company and use software define radio technology to maintain the flexibility needed to meet utility requirements. These networks operate in exclusive use, licensed radio frequencies and are capable of using high transmit power to guarantee ubiquitous coverage. The networks have flexible configuration options including the capability to establish high capacity upstream bandwidth. Network quality issues, like latency, are completely under the utility’s control. Furthermore, these networks are economical to deploy given that they are capable of leveraging the utility’s existing wireless communications infrastructure used for their mission critical voice systems.

Utilities are at a crossroads; they need to adapt to the fundamental changes occurring in the electric grid. Renewables like solar and wind have introduced variability and volatility to the grid and their rate of adoption is forecasted only to increase.

In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), solar energy capacity is expected to grow at a 10 percent compounded average growth rate from now until 2040 increasing from 25 gigawatts of capacity to over 250 gigawatts. It is incumbent upon utilities to embrace this fundamental change in grid efficiency. It will, however, require investing in advanced field data communications based on new private cellular data network technology. This is what Caltech’s Resnick Institute refers to as a “no risk” investment required to manage what in the coming decades is sure to become the most complex cyber-physical system ever created.

Image credit: Warren Gretz, NREL & DOE

Stewart Kantor is the CEO and a co-founder of Full Spectrum Inc., a wireless telecommunications company that designs, develops and manufactures FullMAX, its private broadband wireless internet technology for mission critical industries.  He has more than 20 years of experience in the wireless industry including senior level positions in marketing, finance and product development at AT&T Wireless, BellSouth International and Nokia Siemens Networks.  Since 2004, Mr. Kantor has focused exclusively on the development of private wireless data network technology for mission critical industries including electric utilities, oil & gas companies and the transportation industries. www.fullspectrumnet.com

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