- Mar 28, 2022 4:07 am GMT
This item is part of the Special Issue - 2022-03 - Investing in the Grid 2022, click here for more
When considering investing in the grid’s communication networks, it makes sense to jump right to addressing utilities’ daily pain points. Maybe we even go a step further and think about investments to address challenges we know are coming as surely as the planet will continue to warm and hackers will keep attacking critical infrastructure. But a thoughtful plan will take a step beyond those known events, venturing into the unknown—those developments too distant (or too unthinkable) that the view in the crystal ball is obscured, shrouded in uncertainty. Investing in a standardized private wireless broadband communications network can help cover all those bases: the now, the known, and the unknown.
We all “live in the now”—not the way the self-help gurus mean it, but the way utility operational teams experience it, overcoming daily challenges to keep the lights on. One such burden is maintaining the dozen or more legacy, single-purpose, narrowband wireless networks many utilities rely upon for grid situational awareness and other mission-critical applications. Many of those systems are at or near end-of-life, with vendors discontinuing support. As Navigant stated back in 2018, “At the end of the day, the economics of maintaining dozens of limited purpose networks—and the staff to support them—will become impossible to justify.” Ameren, for example, took the problem on by investing to replace 20 separate legacy networks with a single LTE network. “We were using three different methods of communication in a single substation, so one robust technology really helps,” explained John Hughes, Ameren’s director of network engineering. “The biggest benefit is just the consolidation or convergence into a singular standard.”
Almost as certain as present pain points are the many, many trials we know are coming, driven by decarbonization, decentralization, and digitization. We know utilities will have to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change, driving them to integrate a vastly increased number of distributed energy resources (DERs) into the grid. Utilities will have to efficiently and safely manage the two-way flow of electricity over a system initially designed for a far simpler, one-way model. Their systems will continue to face cyber attacks from lone wolves and nation-state adversaries. Electrification will increase, including the broad adoption of electric vehicles that will require charging at a proliferation of stations throughout the grid. Wildfires and other natural disasters will threaten and compromise utility operations and recovery; some will even be caused by utility infrastructure.
Again, investing in private wireless broadband can help address all of these known challenges. Enabled by such networks, smart grid applications can collect, analyze, and act upon vast amounts of data generated by sensors deployed in every corner of the grid, providing operators unprecedented visibility into grid status and new capabilities to respond remotely in real-time. These applications also bring increased automation, in effect making the grid more immediately reactive and self-sufficient. Built upon a private broadband foundation, grid applications can help manage the proliferation of renewable energy “prosumers” as they morph from producers to consumers of power. And with the low latency of private LTE, utilities can enable Falling Conductor Protection, an application that will identify and automatically de-energize a falling power line before it hits the ground and sparks a wildfire. As San Diego Gas & Electric stated in its Wildfire Mitigation Plan Update last year, it is “currently deploying a privately‐owned LTE network in its service territory using licensed radio frequency (RF) spectrum. A robust communication network is foundational for the success of SDG&E’s advanced protection technologies on the electric distribution system (e.g., Falling Conductor Protection).”
Investing to meet unknown challenges must be trickier—after all, they’re unknown, right? Well, yes and no. Equipment failures are an interesting example: we know they’re going to happen; we just can’t know when and where. But with artificial intelligence supported by private broadband, applications can collect huge amounts of data from grid-deployed sensors, crunch that data and develop predictive models that actually can predict when a specific grid component will fail, enabling operators to replace it before the failure occurs. So maybe that’s not really a good example of the unknown.
Another way to think about investing to address the unknowns is to consider investments that will enable the solutions to address those unknown future challenges when they do arise. For example, nobody knew the current pandemic was coming, but earlier investments in gene manipulation technologies proved critical in combatting covid when it sprang up. Though not a perfect analogy, a similar concept applies to investing in private wireless broadband: it offers a foundation, a platform that can enable new applications to address future challenges. More specifically, investing in a broadband network that implements a 3GPP standard like LTE or 5G will help a utility extend that capability even further because 3GPP is constantly evolving—6G is already on the radar. With an underlying, enabling wireless broadband foundation upon which to build, innovative developers can—and most surely will—find ways to solve problems we cannot now imagine, much less foresee with any specific clarity.
Investments in grid communications can help resolve challenges we know about, because utilities deal with them every day or can see them clearly on the horizon. But investments can have long lifespans, so investment plans should look out past the known impacts. A private LTE or 5G broadband network is one of those few that is well-positioned to help utilities prepare for the unknown.
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