Utilities are hard pressed to reduce operation and maintenance (O&M) costs while facing critical IT challenges, including massive growth in data and devices, supporting multiple applications, implementing effective network management and countering cyber security threats. To explore solutions to these issues, utilities must address the technology that links them all: the communications network.
Unfortunately, networking solutions are frequently deployed to serve a single project or application, leaving utilities with numerous wireless networks to manage different groups of connected devices. In fact, the majority of utilities are deploying and managing several communications solutions.
Organizational silos have led to the build out of separate networks for separate applications, allowing utilities to lose sight of the bigger, integrated picture. True, communication requirements vary greatly among smart grid applications. For instance, the communications technologies used for automatic metering infrastructure (AMI) deliver sufficient capacity for meter reading – but can’t support network requirements for streaming usage data or additional smart grid applications. In addition to single-use challenges, networks built 10 years ago are showing their age, struggling to meet demands for more data points collected with increased frequency, and falling short of the latency and bandwidth requirements of mission-critical distribution automation (DA) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) applications. Instead of deploying one, effective and efficient network that supports hybrid technologies under one management system, utilities have ended up operating numerous, siloed networks for different groups of devices. Needless to say, today’s homegrown or proprietary solutions are insufficient to address the interoperability challenges that utilities are beginning to face.
So many devices
Not only are utilities dealing with a multitude of networks, according to Gartner, by 2020 utilities will be the biggest user of the 25 billion devices that will be connected to the Internet of Things (IoT). With multiple networks and billions of devices, utilities need to implement streamlined solutions to increase efficiency and lower OPEX.
Unlike the mobile telecommunications industry, utilities do not have the luxury of trying to standardize on one wireless communication technology for every device, interface, and application. Trying to do so would introduce additional complexities and risks especially with the numerous remote locations and unforgiving terrain within their service areas. Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) teams need to fully harness the benefits of the hyper-growth of connected devices. To unlock the business value of mobility and data analytics while minimizing risks, utilities require more than a simple device connection; they need an interoperable communication platform specifically designed for electric distribution utilities.
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) creates unique opportunities for utilities. By connecting cloud-based computing services with industrial things deployed in the field, the IIoT provides closed loop functionality that enables utilities to advance processes, gain insight, and optimize control of operations to improve key metrics such as safety, uptime, and efficiency.
While the IIoT creates opportunities, it also creates unique challenges, especially for communication networks. On the one hand, IIoT platforms such as cloud services, universally connect to IP networks, as the word Internet in IIoT implies. On the other hand, the world of industrial things is very diverse.
IIoT – A brave new world
Providing communications for industrial things is very challenging. Industrial things come from a variety of manufacturers, employ a variety of wired and wireless interfaces and protocols (many of which are proprietary), range from new to very old and have widely varying degrees of intelligence. For utilities, the universe of industrial things includes smart meters and other AMI devices, feeder automation components including capacitor bank and recloser controllers, voltage sensors, substation automation devices, including load tap changers, remote terminal units (RTUs), and streetlight control systems. For the IIoT to deliver maximum value, the homogenous, IP-based world of IIoT platforms must seamlessly communicate with the heterogeneous, divergent world of industrial things.
To enable communications between IIoT platforms and industrial things, communication networks must provide diverse interoperability. These networks must seamlessly connect to the array of dissimilar interfaces and protocols supported by industrial things, and translate their data into IP traffic on standard physical and logical network interfaces. Standard interfaces can connect to, and IP traffic can be routed over, the Internet to the desired IIoT platforms. Interoperability enables utilities to realize the full potential of the IIoT without a full infrastructure overhaul. Moreover, as we move closer to the goal of open standards for interoperable communications as driven by the Wi-SUN Alliance and others, seamless standards-based interoperable connectivity will help drive the benefits of IIoT applications including AMI, distribution automation (DA), infrastructure and asset management and more.
Wireless networks enable control, longevity
According to Navigant, wireless solutions are gaining market share because they are proving to be ideal solutions for the growing number of highly distributed intelligent devices and sensors. Systems that previously used physically isolated, proprietary wireless networks to communicate over large areas are evolving to integrated, IP-based architectures. Utilities can architect the network from end to end, leveraging standards-based solutions and different technologies to meet the needs of different applications.
A mixture of architectures is represented: mesh for highest reliability and performance, point to point, point to multipoint, and cellular solutions. There are licensed and unlicensed frequency bands to support varying utility requirements. A common network management platform makes it easier and more efficient to operate the networks.
Hybrid networks enable utilities to use different, but interoperable technologies. This negates the need for a full infrastructure overhaul as tiers can be upgraded as applications are added, reducing the risk of technology obsolescence. An interoperable network can seamlessly and reliably handle:
- Large-scale deployments covering hundreds or thousands of square miles
- The diversity of topographies in urban, suburban, rural and ultra-rural terrain
- Extremely reliable broadband performance for multiple applications
- Potential mix of approaches in centrally managed applications and/or local decision-making applications
- Multiple business teams
A strong network foundation offers the following characteristics:
Highly available: Automatically select the best route through the network from multiple radio frequency (RF) paths, channels and bands.
Scalable: Proven to scale to large coverage areas and because they don’t require tower construction, can also economically cover small areas, such as a single distribution feeder.
High capacity and low latency: Provide >10 Mbps of throughput at each mesh router with latency of <1 ms per mesh hop.
Secure: Offer a multi-layer, defense-in-depth security architecture using open security standards.
Mobility: Provides seamless, reliable field operations and asset tracking
VLANs/Application QoS: Supports VLAN enablement, and security and QoS policy enforcement.
The right communication network foundation will optimize the flow of data from device to distribution management system (DMS). Only reliable and secure real-time information can assist operations room and field personnel in the monitoring and control of the electric distribution system.
With the exponential growth of IIoT devices and the need to quickly analyze actionable data, a modern, secure interoperable communications network is essential to support legacy, as well as current and emerging, interfaces and protocols. Wireless interoperability gateways enable new IIoT capabilities by extending interoperability to field installed industrial things, extending the life of past investment and avoiding stranded assets. Improved efficiency, safety, customer support and lower operational expenses are achieved while realizing the full potential of IIoT.