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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Welcome Ryan Gerbrandt of Anterix, New Expert in the Digital Utility Community- [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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The ability to communicate instantaneously and tap into the treasure trove of data across the grid is one of the most important fronts for the grid moving forward. When we talk about a smart grid, that intelligence requires the infrastructure, planning, and informational capacity that hasn’t been previously made available.

This area is precisely the one that Anterix  is actively filling, and so as we march towards this intelligent grid of the future it’s important to keep listening to the insights from those who are driving the change. That’s the reason that Energy Central is so excited to welcome Ryan Gerbrandt as a part of Energy Central’s Network of Experts, specifically in our Digital Utility Group. Ryan is the Chief Operating Officer at Anterix, and he’s spent his entire career planning and rolling out different aspects of the smart grid. His years of experience, both at solutions providers like Anterix and previously working within the utility side of the equation, make him well suited to provide key insights to fellow Energy Central Community members looking to enhance everything from sensors to communications infrastructure to the internet of things.

To bring the community up to speed on his background and viewpoints moving forward, Ryan agreed to participate in the Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’

If you have any thoughts or questions for Ryan, be sure to let him know in the comments below!

Matt Chester: Thanks for participating in this expert interview process, Ryan. Can you start by introducing yourself to our community—how and why did you get involved in the world of utilities initially, and how has that led to your current role of COO at Anterix?

Ryan Gerbrandt: I’ve been in the utility sector for two decades, starting as a telecommunications engineering technologist with Manitoba Hydro, an innovative Canadian electric and gas utility.  It was a long road from my telecommunications origins to eventually gaining expertise in the utility domain.  My journey took me to Trilliant Networks, which at the time was a Silicon Valley startup focused on wireless communications for smart grid and overall grid digitization.  I spent 13 years with Trilliant helping to build it into a significant global player; along the way I was lucky to be able to develop core capabilities in many parts of the business, from RF design and professional services to global products and solutions.  Near the end of my tenure, I led the launch of Trilliant’s Global IIoT and Smart Cities segment.

Looking back, I’m struck by how forcefully those experiences impressed on me the importance of broadband communications platforms to enable modern, safe and reliable energy grids.  As the Chief Operating Officer for Anterix, I combine my knowledge of utilities with my expertise in wireless networks to lead our teams on sales, product development, marketing, operations, technology  and engineering as we help utilities obtain the essential communications platforms they need. 

 

MC: The nexus of power utilities and communication technologies is becoming more important with each passing year. What do you think utility executives can best learn from their peers in the telecommunications sector, and vice versa?

RG: Utility executives are in the business of providing energy; communications networks have long been a part of that effort, but they typically have been just one of many inputs in a much larger, complex undertaking—certainly not top-of-mind for the executive.  Telecommunications executives, having participated in the data communications-driven transformation of so many industries, are well-positioned to help utility executives understand that information and broadband communications technologies will become the central, enabling platforms that power utilities’ evolution into a cleaner, more sustainable energy future. 

This is not a simple concept for many utility folks to truly grasp.  A private LTE network controlled by a utility won’t only enable the elimination of many legacy, narrowband networks that are inefficient and costly to maintain, it will help put the utility in control of its own network cybersecurity posture.  It provides an underlying broadband capability upon which any number of game-changing smart sensors, devices, and applications can be launched, increasing grid situational awareness, automation, safety, efficiency, reliability and resilience.  It will enable the rapidly increasing reliance upon renewable, distributed, intermittent energy resources, effectively remaking the industry as we have known it for a century.  And it will help strengthen the utility’s relationship with its customer, putting more control and information in hands of the ratepayer. 

One last note that will interest utility execs:  in this time when utilities are generating and selling less of their own power, the new private broadband network can also provide opportunities for new revenue streams, from the leasing of access to communications infrastructure to the provision of utility-grade communications services for other utilities with overlapping footprints, like water and gas, as examples.

 

MC: As those two sectors come together, the goal is that the customers will benefit from getting the best programs and technologies that combine best practices. What sort of improvements can customers—whether residential, commercial, or industrial—expect in the coming years as a result of this collaboration and coordination?

RG: The big impacts are expected to be in a cleaner generation mix, greater grid resilience, and improved customer experience.  It will be extraordinarily difficult for Utilities to achieve renewable energy goals to address climate change without modernizing their grids to accommodate intermittent, distributed energy resources, and the two-way flow of power that comes with them.  And the modern grid we envision, as I’ve suggested, is largely dependent upon utilities having secure, private broadband networks for grid control communications.  So that’s big bucket number one:  cleaner, more sustainable energy.

Next is resilience—a modern grid, enabled by a private broadband network, will be better able to avoid, withstand, and recover from natural and human-caused disasters, cyberattacks, and physical security breaches.  From access in the field to real-time network status data for repair crews (potentially including visiting crews providing mutual aid) to central operations situational awareness, the communications network will help diagnose issues with improved speed and accuracy, allocate recovery resources more efficiently, and even take physical action remotely via connected smart devices installed on the grid.  When every hour without power can cost communities millions of dollars—and storms becoming stronger even as wildfires grow more frequent—utility broadband networks will make a significant difference for customers by making the grid more resilient.

And finally, customer experience.  Depending on how a utility deploys its new private broadband network, it could enable customers to take greater control of their electricity usage, including specifying how much power they get from renewable sources and determining the time of day that they draw power—and thus the price they pay.  A consumer could plug her electric vehicle into a home charger at bedtime and direct the utility to charge it during the two hours when electricity is cheapest before the morning commute.  Since the network is private, it could be isolated from the public internet, insulating it from remote cyber attack and protecting not just the consumer’s privacy and appliances (including that electric vehicle), but also helping prevent harm to the grid from, for example, a hack that starts charging all EVs, at exactly the same moment.

MC: The smart grid as an idea has been building for some time, but it seems like we’re starting to get to a pivot point where the opportunities are more pervasive. What are some of the lesser discussed benefits of a smart grid that should be better highlighted? How will it improve the sector as a whole?

RG: It takes some future-vision to see this, but I think a major benefit of the smart grid—one that will absolutely benefit the sector as a whole—will be vastly increased coordination and cooperation among electric utilities and other critical infrastructure industries.  Today, utilities do share know-how and experience, but for the most part they operate on their own, in separate service territories.  That will continue with the advent of individual private broadband platforms that will enable utilities to deploy smart applications and services.  But when those broadband networks share a common technology and spectrum band (like LTE on Anterix’s 900 MHz spectrum, for example), they can communicate with each other, opening a whole new world of opportunity.

First, there are the scale and scope benefits of an entire industry deploying the same kind of network.  Together they can really drive innovation in devices, equipment, and applications.  For just a taste of what that might look like, check out our recently launched “Anterix Active Ecosystem” program.  The 900 MHz band has been legally capable of broadband only since May 2020, and already 40 leading vendors are pushing to bring to market products and services specifically designed for 900 MHz private LTE. 

But when utilities nationwide adopt that same technology, imagine how those initial 40 vendors and then hundreds more of their competitors will innovate, finding ways to make use of the new networks’ low-latency, broadband communications capabilities—supporting not just intra-utility use cases, but also multi-, inter-utility applications, from resource coordination to mutual aid to cross-country EV charging to transactional energy.  That’s where I think the smart grid—enabled by private broadband—will really shake up the industry.

 

MC: As it stands today, what’s the major holdup on smart technology not being even more widely available on the grid. Are we waiting for the right technology, or is the technology there but there are holdups in the policy or market side?

RG: You’ve hit directly on the major reason the team that started Nextel decided to form Anterix in the first place.  Grid modernization—which depends on that “smart technology”—is a necessity, driven by the substantial, momentum driven transformation taking place in the electric utility industry because of climate change.  As I suggested earlier, in order to reduce carbon emissions, utilities have to move toward renewable energy generation resources like solar and wind power.  That transition can’t happen unless utilities modernize their grids to safely, efficiently integrate those distributed resources.  Modernization means the deployment of “smart” capabilities, relying on information technology to create, analyze, and act upon vast amounts of data.  And virtually all of those new grid capabilities depend on secure, robust, utility-grade broadband communications, including the private wireless networks Anterix enables.  Legacy narrowband (mostly single-purpose) networks do exist, but as in the consumer space, the real “smart” innovations for utilities require broadband. 

The problem—the hold up—has been that until last year, utilities just didn’t have any good spectrum options on which to build the private broadband networks they need.  No spectrum, no wireless broadband network.  No network, no vast deployment of smart technologies.  That’s why Anterix undertook to solve the spectrum problem and enable this critical transition to occur in the industry.

After a five-year regulatory effort, we succeeded—and now a path has been cleared.  In May 2020, the FCC changed its rules to allow Anterix’s 900 MHz spectrum holdings to be used for broadband, making dedicated, low-band, “beach-front” spectrum available for broadband services virtually everywhere in the nation.  And that summer, the FCC auctioned broadband spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, and some utilities won licenses there.  So now there are spectrum options, private utility broadband networks can be built, and the flow of smart technologies and innovations is beginning.  It is a really exciting time to be in the industry.

______________________________________

Thanks to Ryan Gerbrandt for joining me for this interview and for providing a wealth of insights and expertise to the Energy Central Community. You can trust that Ryan will be available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see him across the platform.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

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