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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Leveraging Advanced Utility Telecom Tech to Optimize the Evolving Grid, an Interview with Julian Stafford of the Europe Utility Technology Council

image credit: Julian Stafford

The parallels between the telecommunication and the utility sector have always run deep, and they fulfill essential and unique roles within global industry. Not only do they have many similarities in scale, operations, and business, but their interaction is increasingly a critical aspect of a smarter and more advanced future for each.

Many of the issues related to this intersection are set to be discussed by subject matter experts at the upcoming Utility Telecoms 2020 Conference, taking place in late February in Amsterdam. In one presentation that is likely to be of particular note to those in the utility business is the one from Julian Stafford, Techncial Advisor to the Europe Utility Technology Council (EUTC). Julian is going to take his experience and expertise in the field and share with the conference his talk “Transitioning from TDM to PSN – leveraging advanced utility telecom technologies to ensure secure, reliable and flexible connection within the evolving grid.”

While Julian fine tunes his notes ahead of such an engaging and important presentation, he was able to sneak in some time to share some insights with the Energy Central community via an interview for our Power Perspective™ Interview Series:

Matt Chester: First, I’d love to hear about your background. How did you get involved in the utility sector and specifically on the topic of telecom technologies on the grid?

Julian Stafford: I’ve always been interested in radio, telecoms and electricity from a young age and used to fix TVs and videos recorders-- remember them?-- to earn extra beer money when I was a student in Sheffield. My first proper job was with NORWEB in Manchester, the regional electricity board for the North West back in 1992. I worked on power systems analysis looking at fault levels, transformer efficiencies, etc. using some fairly state of the art simulation tools for the time. At that poin,t the power industry was a very stable place to be and not particularly dynamic, although the in-house telecoms teams were always pushing the boundaries event then.

About the same time, in common with many other power companies, NORWEB launched its own telecoms brand; essentially everyone was jumping on the bandwagon of connectivity and the ‘dot com’ bubble. I moved full time into the telecoms subsidiary at an exciting time and learned a lot about fiber optics, microwave radio systems, and cellular technology. I also continued to do a lot of work on mission critical PMR and SCADA systems for the parent company, which really allowed me to learn about both the consumer/business telecom environment as well as the utility telecom sector.

I spent the next 15 years working for the likes Scottish Telecom, Cable and Wireless, and Vodafone, delivering rural broadband projects in Cumbria, Scotland, West Midlands etc. During all of this time, I had increasing contact with government agencies, regulators, and standards bodies. Around 2015, I started to be asked by some of my former utility colleagues about state-of-the-art telecoms technology and how it might be applied to smart grids. I then began to perform several consultancy roles for UK power companies and eventually was asked if I would like to head up EUTC. It has become apparent that the transition towards a smart grid future is inevitable and that specific technical and commercial requirements will evolve. EUTC is front and center of this evolution and is part of the wider UTC group which has presence in North America, Europe, Africa. and Latin America.

 

MC: You’re going to be presenting on how the utility sector should be using telecom technologies for grid reliability and security. What is the level of telecom technologies currently being used and to what advanced level are you advocating the sector to move to? What is the importance in doing so?

JS: It’s really important to remember the utility sector has always used telecoms technology to enhance reliability and security. In fact, many of the existing systems were developed by very innovative and forward-thinking engineers from the utility sector who couldn’t buy what they wanted ‘off the shelf,’ very much a case of necessity being the mother of invention.

However, the pressures on utilities in the 21st Century are enormous, with the main drivers being UN and EU climate change directives. The increase in devices which need to be monitored and controlled in the future smart grid is something between 100 and 1,000 times the number which are currently visible, and all of them with a huge date throughput and reliability requirements. Although many of the previous solutions employed by were ingenious, they were proprietary and won’t scale to the volumes required for the future.

Utilities already use the best of standardised technologies which are available (normally a hybrid of GPRS, MPLS-TP, Satellite, and fiber) combined with private networks, but significant enhancements are required to those systems if they are to be truly fit for use in the smart grid of the future. There is some discussion around the use of 5G to solve all of these problems; unfortunately, 5G in its current state won’t solve the issues surrounding smart grids, although with development work it could play a significant part. The constraints of 5G are not just technical but also commercial in the business models surrounding 5G deployment and how operators will ensure that 5G networks could operate during a major blackout of, for instance, 72 hours. The importance of getting the telecoms solutions rights for smart grids should not be underestimated; without highly reliable control and monitoring of millions of distributed assets, there can be no meaningful move towards greater decarbonisation of transport, heat, or renewable energy.

MC: On this topic, you’ve mentioned the chicken and egg stalemate and how that’s been worked through at various EU countries. What caused that situation in the first place and what can be learned from the countries that have moved past it into trial and integration stage?

JS: The chicken and egg stalemate is familiar to utilities; there is a requirement and desire to have a broader ‘ecosystem’ to support utility telecom networks. This will ensure longer term support for solutions and avoid vendor lock in scenarios and obsolesce issues. Of course, from the position of large operators and equipment vendors there needs to be evidence of large addressable market. This is a difficult deadlock to break, and historically utilities have been self-sufficient in designing their own specific products. On the other hand, utilities have represented a fragmented market representing a relatively small volume when compared to consumer markets. The move towards smart grids is forcing the issue and requires EU wide and global harmonization in order that standardized, volume solutions are developed for the collective benefit of consumers, utilities and equipment vendors. In 2020, we are truly beginning to witness a paradigm shift in the way that energy networks are supplied with raw energy and how those resources are monitored and controlled.

 

MC: Are these transitions only felt on the utility side, or as the transition takes place will customers notice any notable differences or improvements?

JS: Consumers will feel the positive or negative outcomes of these developments and discussions. In Europe, we enjoy an enviable reputation for reliability in terms of power supply. There are the often quoted three legs of the energy ‘stool’: reliability, low cost & carbon neutrality. Without massive enhancements in connectivity at the medium voltage and low voltage elements in the grid, any move towards further decarbonization will result in a less reliable energy supply. On the other hand, a move to avoid a less carbon intensive energy generation scenario could be made more reliable by having more standby generation, but that would increase costs significantly and offset some of the environmental benefits. Therefore, the smart grid is essential for meeting Kyoto and Paris climate change agreements.

At the more local level, anyone installing domestic PV systems or investing in an electric vehicle will no doubt want to partake in ‘prosumer’ behaviour for a combination of financial and social reasons. Without reliable communications systems to support these ideals, consumers will miss out on many potential benefits.

MC: These conferences are always great opportunities to not only share your ideas and insights but also to learn from others. Are there any specific topics that you’re looking forward to learning about at the Utility Telecoms Conference? Any presentations (other than your own!) that you consider can’t-miss?

JS: I am looking forward to the entire event of course, but of particular importance to me are any sessions which touch upon UN and EC Policies in relation to this subject (ETSI, CEPT, DG Connect, 3GPP, ITU etc). The challenges which we are facing in the global environment are very significant. Many EUTC members are highly proactive in this area. However, they are all commercial organizations with shareholder expectations and financial obligations to satisfy. On matters of such importance, it is essential for government leadership and policy guidance to act as a catalyst and facilitate the necessary changes.

I am particularly looking forward to the presentations from some of EUTC’s members such as Aliander, EDP, ESB and Iberdrola. EUTC exists in order to provide expert advice to policy and government departments in order to bring about a brighter, carbon neutral future for today and future generations.

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If you’re interested in hearing more about Julian’s insights into the future of telecom developments for the utility industry, be sure to check out his presentation at the Utility Telecoms 2020 conference, taking place from February 25 to 27 in Amsterdam. You can check out the agenda and register for the conference here.

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