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Energy Currents
A Blog by Enerdynamics

The Third Network – Communications Integrated into Gas and Electric Networks

by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator

“When complete, the Smart Grid will employ real-time, two-way digital information and communication technologies in the operation of the nation’s electric grid.” ~ National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Press Release

As gas and electric utilities move forward with implementing advanced grids, they are finding they must develop and manage a new “third grid” – the communications system that is integrated into the energy network. This is a major transformation because energy utilities have historically thought of communications as a separate “auxiliary” function that was not central to the business. Now, utilities must think of their communications grid as critical to their operation. Let’s explore the “third grid” in more detail using the electric grid as our example.

Historically, communications with assets in the grid were limited to connections to power plants and large transmission substations that often required manned stations to receive and act on the communications. As communications systems have become more robust and monitoring and control equipment has become more affordable, the communications grid has pushed deeper into the distribution system. With the advent of automatic metering infrastructure (AMI) communication was completed all the way to the customer meter. And now, in some pilot cases, communication and control is connected to customer devices behind the meter.   

Examples of Communications Infrastructure

Here are two examples:

1. Progress Energy Distribution Network

Here we see various devices in a Progress Energy distribution substation and on a distribution feeder. Communications to the substation is through a dedicated Progress Energy (PGN)-owned fiber network or through fiber connections provided by telecom carriers. This provides direct monitoring and control of various devices in substation including capacitor (cap) banks, voltage regulators, and switches. Data is also received from meters so that flow and other power conditions at the substation are continuously monitored. On the distribution feeder, wireless networks (either owned by Progress or provided by commercial telecom carriers) are used to monitor and sometimes control devices such as capacitor banks, reclosers, line condition monitors, and voltage regulators. In the last decade, Progress has gone from having almost no monitoring or control over distribution devices to implementing a robust system providing that capability.

2. Arizona Public Service Solar Innovation Study

Here we see the network required for APS’ Solar Innovation Study. This pilot project explores the integration of advanced technologies with demand-based rates through the use of customer-controlled equipment such as rooftop solar, battery storage, smart thermostats, and smart inverters. The project software connects to various devices in the consumers’ homes either directly or via a customer gateway. The pilot will study whether it makes sense for the utility to develop services that involve APS controlling various devices in consumers’ homes based on agreements with the customer.

Potential Benefits of Communications Infrastructure

Potential benefits of integrating a communications infrastructure into energy grids are significant. Examples of benefits for an electric utility include:

  • Remote monitoring and control of distribution assets
  • Management of voltage to reduce system losses and ensure power quality
  • Remote fault detection and automatic fault isolation
  • Automation of distribution switching and outage response
  • Automatic meter reading
  • Real-time load monitoring on feeders
  • Monitoring of various distribution assets to optimize maintenance procedures
  • Aggregation of distributed energy resources as a supply resource and as alternatives to distribution upgrades
  • Capability to offer customers multiple new services

Implementation is Not Easy

Building out communications infrastructure to provide services desired is not an easy task. A typical utility will end up managing multiple networks depending on local conditions and availability of bandwidth. Each device may have different communications protocols that must be matched. One utility we recently reviewed was managing optical fiber, wireless, microwave, radio, and paging systems. Communications infrastructure was partially owned by the utility, partially leased, and partially provided by third-party telecom providers. Meanwhile, the utility had to manage cybersecurity issues and deal with significant data latency problems as networks that once worked well became overloaded by increasing amounts of data sent by numerous new connected devices.

Clearly, as gas and electric utilities become more and more dependent on operational practices and new services that require robust communications and control, utilities must go beyond being experts at energy networks to also become experts in telecommunications.  

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Gas and Electric Utilities , Electric Grid ,