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“Communications is a fundamental issue”: NYPA’s Gil Quiniones on Its LTE Network Deployment

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DW Keefer's picture
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DW Keefer is a Denver-based energy journalist who writes extensively for national and international publications on all forms of electric power generation, utility regulation, business models...

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  • Aug 26, 2020

This item is part of the LTE Networks & Utilities - Summer 2020 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

The New York Power Authority (NYPA), the nation's largest state-owned power utility, is testing a private long-term evolution (LTE) network that it plans to use for applications ranging from energy metering to inspection drones for its high-voltage transmission system.

The communications and data network is the latest stage of a multi-part effort that began in 2014 and that aims to digitally transform every aspect of the utility’s business. The scope includes hard assets such as power plants and transmission lines, as well as soft assets that include human resources, legal, finance, and shared services.

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The enterprise-wide transformation is designed to be “end-to-end and inside out,” said Gil Quiniones, NYPA’s president and CEO in an interview with Energy Central.

In pursuing the multi-year transformation, the G&T utility has worked to keep its customers at the center of its planning. Customers include state government buildings, large manufacturers, and more than 50 municipal and co-op wholesale accounts.

NYPA generates a quarter of all of the state’s electric power, around 80% of that from hydroelectric resources. It also operates one-third of the state’s high voltage transmission system.

“We are the backbone of the state’s power system,” Quiniones said.

NYPA’s most recent step in its digital transformation involves building a 3GPP standards-based private LTE network. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project refers to standards organizations that develop protocols for mobile telecommunications.

When fully deployed, the wireless network will utilize a $150 million, 700-mile-long fiber network as the backhaul, that is scheduled to be finished next year.  NYPA’s Communications Backbone initiative replaces legacy leased communication circuits with new infrastructure that will increase available bandwidth as more digital assets and sensors come online. A related  Sensor Deployment program aims at adding roughly 150,000 data points for monitoring NYPA equipment.

The current test phase of NYPA’s network uses as a focus the 1,100 megawatt Blenheim–Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Station in the Catskill Mountains near Albany. The facility is used on a daily basis to meet peak demand in New York City.

NYPA joins a growing list of companies, government agencies and others that are looking to build private wireless LTE networks. In the utility sector, more than a dozen companies are at varying stages of P-LTE.

Efforts received a boost in May when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved repurposing a portion of the spectrum in the 900 megahertz (MHz) band for wireless broadband. The FCC order means that existing interleaved land mobile radio (LMR) channels can be reconfigured into blocks that will enable utilities to build their own LTE communications networks.

In practice, the 900 MHz band meets most field communication requirements and is robust enough to propagate across a far-flung utility service territory like NYPA’s.

The FCC’s order will allow for 3 watts of field device transmit power, capable of meeting the needs of a typical static field device. And it also recognizes technology neutrality and the use of any approved 3GPP device, both important aspects to ensure spectrum efficiency.

Southern Company and Ameren have been conducting LTE trial projects. In Ameren’s case, its live trials covered several miles of service territory and two electricity substations. It tested collecting metering data through its own mesh network then transmitting that data over a public cellular network to Ameren's operations.

Altogether, more than a dozen utilities across the country have been “comparing notes” on LTE deployment, Quiniones said. He sees continued collaboration as being “really helpful” as NYPA pursues its digital strategy.

That strategy to date has been realized through two major technology rollouts. The first is known as the New York Energy Manager hub, which links roughly over 17,000 state government buildings and facilities on a single digital platform. The hub is designed to leverage advanced analytics and machine learning in order to improve energy efficiency and customer experience.

The second uses digital tools to make NYPA’s generation and the transmission system smarter, more flexible and more resilient. Those tools operate within the utility’s Integrated Smart Operations Center (iSOC) and Advanced Grid Innovation Lab for Energy (AGILe) hubs.

“If we want to be in the artificial intelligence and machine learning world, then communications is a fundamental issue,” Quiniones said.

Tools like digital twins are intended to help bulk energy customers assess how they currently use energy and how they can become more efficient. Digital tools also can be used to integrate the fast-growing use of technologies like electric vehicle chargers, community solar and smart city applications.

Quiniones said that NYPA’s long-range vision is to lease excess bandwidth capacity to cities and towns along the east-west Interstate 90 corridor that extends from Buffalo to Albany. That route parallels a big portion part of NYPA’s transmission network and also is within the footprint of the storied Erie Canal. The 19th century engineering marvel helped to drive economic expansion in cities like Syracuse and Rochester. In the 21st century, expanded communications services made possible as a result of NYPA’s LTE network could provide a similar boost.

A prime reason why NYPA is pursuing a private network is that it will offer levels of security and control that largely are unavailable from third-party networks, Quiniones said.

“When you rely on a third-party network, you are subject to a range of operational vagaries and unrelated traffic on the network,” he said. When it comes to cybersecurity, he pointed out that electric utilities are one of the few sectors in the economy that is regulated. He characterized cyber regulations promulgated by the FERC and NERC as “the floor” and said that a private network will enable NYPA to design a system that will meet its own security requirements.

Underlying the P-LTE buildout are three goals that Quiniones said to guide its broader digital planning deployment: The ability to scale up digital enterprise architecture over time, the importance of valuing data as a critical asset to the utility’s operation, and the ability to provide providing a common roadmap for future application development work.

“When we develop applications we want to do that in a consistent way,” he said, similar to the way Apple provides API parameters that are used by thousands of smart device app developers.

From his perspective at the helm of the NYPA, Quiniones said that a “rigorous business case” needs to be a top consideration for other utilities considering their own LTE investment. After all, a utility can expect to spend tens of millions of dollars on a network. That makes it imperative to underpin the proposed investment with a strong business case. In the case of NYPA, Quiniones said it has the advantage of being guided by specific energy and climate goals that are included in bills passed by the state legislature and signed into law by the governor.

“You have to really engage your regulators and your customers” by providing project updates not only to share wins but also to explain challenges that remain to be met.

“Overcommunicate with regulators and customers,” he advised.

A digital venture’s success can be encouraged through what Quiniones described as a management culture that embraces agility, that sees failure as an opportunity for learning, that is nimble enough to adjust course in light of lessons learned and that can repeat success through an iterative process.

“That’s the way innovation occurs,” he said.

Creating resilient, redundant communications systems is nothing less than a necessity for utilities, Quiniones said.

He sees NYPA’s multi-year digital transformation investment—capped with the deployment of a state-of-the-art LTE network—as a vital tool that will improve efficiency and productivity all across the utility in a “step-wise fashion, not just in an incremental way.”

Matt Acton's picture
Matt Acton on Sep 15, 2020

It was surprising that a Transmission-only utility has enough use cases and aggregated data needs to justify a broadband wireless deployment but with "NYPA’s long-range vision is to lease excess bandwidth capacity..." it makes much more sense now!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 15, 2020

Seems to be in line with a lot of other priorities shifting to 'as a Service' models, which seems to be smart but I always wonder if there's a limit to that approach that we're quickly going to reach

DW Keefer's picture
Thank DW for the Post!
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