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Mesh Networks: A Short Introduction

image credit: Mesh Network Example
Rakesh  Sharma's picture
Journalist Freelance Journalist

I am a New York-based freelance journalist interested in energy markets. I write about energy policy, trading markets, and energy management topics. You can see more of my writing at Rakesh Sharma  

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Electricity distribution grids have been served well by the radial distribution network architecture for communication between different elements of their grid. Simple and cost-effective, it is the most common form of topology used in the grid. It employs a tree architecture in which branches radiate out from a central node. The problem with the architecture is that it creates a single point of failure by creating a network of dependencies. If a single fault occurs in one of the branches, the remaining nodes downstream lose power. This state of affairs can be especially precarious in situations involving distributed energy resources (DERs). In fact, according to research, the more the number of distributed generators installed in distribution networks, the fewer the reasons to keep using radial-operated networks. 

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That is why it has become increasingly important to use mesh networks. Architecturally, mesh networks are modified ring networks. The latter type of network forms interconnections in the form of a ring to route services. Multiple such networks are joined together to form a ring. The network’s shape ensures that there are multiple sources for each load and a breakdown in one part of the network will not become a showstopper in another. 

A mesh network introduces backup redundancies to the ring network architecture. A mesh gateway is responsible for transmitting and receiving data from a central source. It is ideally suited for short distances, in which several devices and sources of energy feed into a node, such as a substation. For example, consider that each smart meter in your grid is a node in itself and data from the smart meter is transmitted (or hops) through various nodes until it reaches the gateway. Mesh networks are already popular within WiFi to extend the range of routers.   

Why Are Mesh Networks Becoming Popular? 

Mesh networks are ideal for a heterogeneous grid that incorporates several devices and energy sources in its architecture. Along with multiple sources of energy, from wind to solar to storage, grids also incorporate a variety of devices, such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) or Fault Location, Isolation and System Restoration (FLISR). Not all of these devices are managed or controlled by a utility. Mesh networks can help reduce the vulnerability of such grids. A fault in a single element of the grid can lead to a breakdown in functioning of the entire network. Redundancies within the mesh network can help ensure that there are alternate channels for communication within the grid. Mesh networks are also ideal for the bidirectional information flows required in smart grids and are necessary to handle the deluge of data resulting from a grid connected to an Internet of Things (IoT) world.  

But such networks come with their own set of problems. For example, they are supposed to result in communication latency or backlogs. Data traveling through several hops takes time and could result in transmission delays. Then there’s the fact that multiple standards for communication exist for mesh networks. Within the market for WiFi routers, the absence of a standard may not be a problem. But it is definitely a problem for a regulated industry like the utility industry, where competition among competing standards will hinder services offered and result in overhead costs.

In response, variants of mesh networks that incorporate solutions to these problems are being developed. 

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