By Beecher Tuttle
Ever-increasing energy consumption, skyrocketing operating costs and pressure from regulatory bodies to help create a greener world have forced power utilities to reassess their delivery management methods.
The need for change – along with the recent influx of innovative network technologies – has led many utilities and distribution and system operators (TDSOs) to embrace the smart grid, a concept aimed at leveraging the power of next-generation networks to improve the efficiency and reliability of energy delivery and usage. The visibility and control provided by the smart grid enables utilities to match supply and demand, optimize delivery, cut operating costs and reduce carbon emissions.
In addition, a smart grid opens up a two-way communication system between utilities and customers, thus creating additional upsell opportunities and the ability for consumers to take a hands-on approach to energy conservation. Smart grid customers have access to their own webpage that details their energy consumption and the associated costs.
Deploying a smart energy grid is vital for utilities to thrive in the current environment, but it doesn't come without complications. TDSOs need to chose the appropriate technologies, understand their network requirements and make major decisions like if they should build their own communications infrastructure or lease it from a service provider.
Many of these questions can be answered by Alcatel-Lucent, whose Integrated Communications for Power Utilities solution is a proven way to take utilities into the 21st century of energy delivery and efficiency.
With its experience designing and deploying IP and LTE broadband wireless access networks, Alcatel-Lucent has a unique perspective on what is needed to get a smart grid initiative up and running.
In a recent white paper, Smart Choices for the Smart Grid, Alcatel researchers give TDSOs a window into some of the challenges that need to be addressed before implementing smart grid initiatives as well as what is necessary to accelerate their deployment.
Some of the insight provided in the article is strategically based, while other portions center on tactical decisions. For example, Alcatel stresses that application-specific, single-purpose networks like SCADA are simply too expensive and impractical to manage.
"A better, less costly strategy would be an integrated communications network supporting all applications, with proper implementation of quality of service (QoS), reliability, security and unified network management tools to ensure delivery of critical smart grid application traffic," according to the authors.
Alcatel also believes that smart grid-related network technologies should always be IP-based. This way, reliability, redundancy and availability are all but assured. In addition, IP-based network layer technologies allow utilities to tap into innovative telecom-related products and services.
"Legacy protocols can be carried through IP using a variety of methods such as tunneling via multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) — a proven technology deployed broadly in large enterprise and carrier networks and already being adopted by the utility industry," the authors add.
The white paper delves into the common TDSO concern over wireless spectrum, a necessary component that many utilities don't have access to, at least not enough to support video surveillance and other real-time smart grid applications.
Alcatel believes that the answer to this problem is public/private partnerships and FCC spectrum allocations. If TDSOs are able to have access to lower spectrum bands with between 3 and 5 Mb/s of wireless throughput per sector, smart grid adoption would surge.
With spectrum issues front and center with the FCC and smart grid deployment in the U.S. ramping up, it will be interesting the choices electric utilities makes to assure rapid and cost-effective implementations based on the criticality of integrated communications to the future of smart grids.