Making digital smarter with unified smart grid communications

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The utilities industry is undergoing a massive digital transformation as it introduces powerful, innovative technologies such as smart grids. By the year 2020, billions of intelligent devices will be connected to the energy smart grid — from street lamps and home appliances to electric vehicles, solar panels and wind turbines.

The ubiquity of mobile communications in our increasingly networked society is a good example of the kind of dramatic societal changes that are now also impacting the energy industry.

As the number of end-devices accelerates, high-bandwidth, low-latency networks are being deployed to carry the associated data streams. The need to manage communications and connectivity data is an opportunity for utilities to leverage advancements in IT and communications technology — and the resulting economies of scale — to accelerate their digital transformation. By deploying standards-based technologies, utilities can reduce operating expenses, minimize outages and improve customer experiences.

Smart Grids Demand Smart Integration

Utilities face numerous challenges as they integrate complex smart grid communications networks into their existing networks. The installed base typically contains a high proportion of proprietary and hardware-based networks that are managed with vendor- or technology-specific systems or, many times, manually with spreadsheets or proprietary tools.

As a result of mergers and acquisitions, many companies are faced with equipment from a variety of vendors and diverse operational practices. These network and management silos lead to inefficiencies and resulting high labor and operating costs. Adding smart grid networks to this fragmented environment increases management complexity multifold. With the growing number of endpoints and networks, sending trucks out to troubleshoot or provide manual reconfigurations becomes cost-prohibitive.

To overcome this inefficient and costly situation, utilities are transforming their approach to network management by implementing intelligent communications networks and end-to-end control connectivity and management solutions. This transformation will not happen overnight and certainly needs to accommodate the installed base. A unified approach to network management and configuration means gathering events and control information from new as well as legacy networks and then analyzing and managing the information to quickly identify required actions.

This transformation enables much more than meter management. It opens a world of automation and efficiency, thereby reducing costs and outages, as well as new revenue opportunities.

Integration Success Hinges On Solid Unified Communications Management

The network management and interoperability issues that utilities face will only worsen as they deploy more communications equipment to support expanding smart grid portfolios. What’s needed is a management solution that holistically ties together communications network management and grid operations.

Such an end-to-end approach enables utilities to efficiently and cost-effectively plan, manage and assure their multi-vendor, multi-technology communications networks and smart devices utility-wide. They can quickly integrate new networks and technologies, support a variety of applications and manage the networks from a single screen.

A unified communications management solution that can efficiently design, implement and optimize processes and systems is an enabling technology for smart grids.

A unified communications management solution collects, manages and controls reliable data from radio mesh networks, fixed fiber connections, cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi gateways or home networks. Data can be collected from individual devices or existing management silos and fed into a single service enablement layer that is vendor agnostic.

Events can be detected and tracked, root cause analysis performed, and notification provided to staff for action. A unified interface for network monitoring and control enables everyone to see a consistent, accurate, end-to-end view of the network to better manage risk and make timely decisions.

Equipment can be configured automatically and activated quickly, consistently and accurately. And the health of smart devices can be managed by automatically sending commands to check status or change parameters in near real-time, depending on the chosen communications technology and installed legacy networks.

Since communications technology is more sensitive than power grid components to fluctuations in voltage and other sources of power spikes, utilities can move from reactive to proactive maintenance. Problems in the communications grid are detected in milliseconds and can automatically trigger an event for investigation compared to slow-burning fuses with long reaction times, for example. Monitoring critical events and taking proactive steps can correct incipient problems before an outage occurs or customer service is impacted.

Controlling and managing connectivity end-to-end enables the energy provider to deliberately and gradually reduce power consumption to avoid brownouts. As such, they can focus on large energy users, such as shopping malls, when a power grid is becoming overloaded.

By reducing lighting a few percent or increasing the temperature a few degrees, enough energy may be saved to avoid a larger power outage. Providing this as a service to enterprises can even create an additional revenue stream for the utility company. And the system provides confidence that power can be restored quickly. This kind of proactive energy management increases customer satisfaction.

The level of control connectivity provided should be determined by the desired response time, sensitivity and accuracy of the data. Response times can differ for grid event data compared to metering data, since they impact the business differently. Dropping a few metering data events over time does not have a big impact, so less accurate and less costly connectivity makes business sense.

But if a natural disaster or a backhoe cuts a cable near a grid substation, operations must be notified immediately and rapid manual or automated action taken. With distributed automation and self-healing networks the energy can be redistributed within seconds and truck rolls avoided.

A unified communications management solution can query the multivendor and multi-technology network automatically to identify and correct inventory discrepancies, resulting in continual data integrity. This enables network capacity optimization by making most effective use of resource investments. Centralized inventory management also ensures power grid reliability by providing an end-to-end view of the communications network, including all “touch points” between it and the power grid.

Automated processes such as near real-time traffic monitoring, alarm filtering and correlation, proactive Key Performance Indicator and real-time root cause analysis, and automated trouble ticketing assure power grid reliability by quickly identifying faults and their impacts on the power grid. A smart grid can self-heal when faults occur or field crews can be dispatched. This reduces outage frequency, severity and repair times.

Workforce management processes are optimized so that the right people are sent to the right place at the right time to provide the right service or maintenance, since information is sent via all the connected devices in the grid.

Reaping The Benefits Of Intelligent Smart Grid Communications Management

A smart grid communications management solution helps utilities optimally deploy and manage multi-technology and multivendor networks through integrated, end-to-end management of increasingly complex communications infrastructures. As a result, power companies can make the power grid more efficient, reliable, safe and secure. They can uncover grid-impacting network issues faster, thereby improving the efficiency, reliability and sustainability of their power networks.

This integrated, scalable approach, based on proven IT and communications solutions, enables new technologies, such as smart meters, smart electric vehicle charging stations, or cloud-based energy management systems, to be introduced and managed without creating silos.

The door is also opened to new revenue streams such as home or building energy management and automation, often using excess bandwidth in the installed base of devices if a reliable technology has been used.

Accelerating Digital Transformation With Telecom and IT Advances

Unified smart grid communications management solutions are strategic enablers for utility company digital transformations. Energy industry infrastructure, with smart grid, is taking on many of the characteristics of telecom and IT. So, instead of starting from scratch, the industry can take advantage of the digital communications advancements of those industries and the experiences of their major software, hardware and services suppliers. These standards-based, real-time communications solutions provide economies of scale, as well as increased automation and efficiencies. As a result, utilities can accelerate their digital transformation while reducing operating expenses and improving customer experiences.

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