Communications technologies are central to this system automation movement: Automatic Meter Reading (AMR), Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), supply automation and supply control and optimisation applications are all enabled by advanced communications and will help utilities to cut costs, maximise assets, and improve customer service and power reliability.
This dramatic change in the business environment offers tremendous opportunity for utilities, but the task is large and complex and the risks are great. To assist utilities to move into the future the Washington, DC-based Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) and The Shpigler Group, a consulting firm in Pearl River, NY, have undertaken a review, “Next Steps to the Next- Generation Utility: An Assessment of Information and Communications Technologies Aiding Migration to Next-Generation Critical Utility Infrastructures”, to define this critical investment cycle, which is expected to dominate at least the next two decades.
TOWARDS A COMMON VISION
Aldo Morri, director of research at the UTC, explains that several recent events, among them Hurricane Katrina, the 2003 Northeast blackout that left 50 million consumers in the US and Canada without power, and the California energy crisis, have exposed the vulnerabilities of ageing utility infrastructures in the US. Indeed the US Department of Energy has estimated that losses to the economy due to utility outages, quality disturbances and other events total approximately $188 billion annually.
At the same time energy demand is continuing to increase, and there are also a number of other factors pressuring utilities to upgrade infrastructures: regulators are moving to increased industry competition, consumer groups are making greater demands on pricing and other issues, and governments are pressing for cleaner, more reliable energy. In short consumers, governments and society want more energy, at better prices, and delivered more reliably.
Morri says the keys for the utility of the future are the advent of ‘intelligent’ sensors, albeit that they are too costly currently for widespread deployment, and two-way communications, which together will lead ultimately to a future ‘self healing grid’.
KEY OBSERVATIONS ON STEPS TO THE NEXT-GENERATION UTILITY
“Communications networks serve as the blood vessels of the automation and information system of the next-generation utility. Two-way communications establish a platform for all the different devices to send information back and forth, ideally enabling all of the elements of the utility’s network and operations to work in tandem.”
Morri says that efforts to turn the vision of the nextgeneration utility into reality are already beginning, with advances in metering the obvious first step beyond advanced communications.
“One-way communications systems are being replaced with robust, two-way communications networks that make a widespread move to AMI possible.”
Thereafter subsequent steps that can be expected are supply automation, and then supply optimisation and control. And all of them will be brought together in the self-healing grid, which will continuously send, receive and process data on system condition and components’ health and pass information among intelligent electronic devices, generators, system operators, and even marketers and consumers. However, this may take a while, Morri says. “Real selfhealing grids are unlikely to be reached in the next 20 years or so.”
Morri says that most of the right technology is already available now but that it is a question of economies of scale before its use will become more widespread. “We have the data management and communication tools and we have the intelligent sensors, but they are too expensive to install on the thousands of substations, and tens of thousands of kilometres of transmission and distribution lines across the US. However, with volumes, particularly with the globalisation of the concept and expansion of the pool of potential customers, prices [of equipment] should decrease.”
MOVING INTO THE FUTURE
There is uncertainty about intelligent network investment, as the technology is largely unproven and the business case is not clear. On top of this, utilities have legacy systems that are robust and still working well, and will need to interoperate with new systems.
Then there is also the traditional mindset that is prevalent, and which is exacerbated by the ageing workforce in the industry. “Many senior people are near retirement, and the industry is struggling to find replacements while maintaining the flow of power and investigating upgrades.”
But, Morri notes, the presence of an increasing number of IT people in senior positions in utilities is a positive sign.
When it does come to the rollout, Morri cautions that there is not a single, fit all model: “Every utility is different in terms of geographic coverage, regulatory framework, or in its legacy technologies, but for most utilities, smart metering that is enabled by advanced communications will represent the first advanced automated application.”
NEXT-GENERATION UTILITY COMMUNICATIONS
Various communications technologies are available for system automation. Wireless communications, Power Line Communications (PLC), or Broadband over Power Line (BPL) are currently the most preferred, but a variety of other technologies are available to satisfy different needs, e.g. wireless radio for voice communications, fibre optic networks for ultra-fast critical transmissions, and LANs for communications within a limited area. Most utilities are likely to adopt a hybrid system that combines technologies such as Wi-Max wireless technologies interlinked in a ‘mesh’ network and PLC/BPL.
New IP-based services that should be supported include:
These applications are driving the need for increased bandwidth that is more flexible and efficient. While core utility operational networks can be based on a number of technologies, e.g. Synchronous Optical Net (SONET)/Time Division Multiplex (TDM), Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), increasingly these services will be delivered over an Internet Protocol/Multi-Protocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) architecture that can enable the delivery of multiple IPbased applications and services over a network.