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European Utility Telecommunications: Progressing Toward Smart Grids

Nov. 26, 2019
EU-based utilities are coming to understand the need for a new and more harmonized approach to smart-grid solutions.

The European Union (EU) has some of the most ambitious climate change objectives in the world. The drive toward carbon-neutral systems — especially in energy supply (which includes heat) and transportation — is underpinned by some very demanding targets, at both the national level and at the European Commission level.

Targets forbidding the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles have recently been announced. Some target 2025 (in Norway) and others target 2030 (in Sweden, Netherlands, Ireland, and Denmark). Challenging numerical targets and objectives have been announced, that end the installation of new gas-fired central heating systems from 2025 (as in the United Kingdom).

Added to this mix is one additional factor: the exponential expansion in recent times of photovoltaic (PV) and wind generation. This growth in supply has been fueled, in part, by generous subsidies in order to accelerate adoption of renewables. Germany already has a combined solar and wind capability approaching 100 GW. Increasing use of electric vehicles (EVs), and their potential to significantly decarbonize transport, is creating a paradigm shift in the way that commuters go about their day-to-day business and their leisure activities. Indeed, there are recent suggestions in Sweden that an electric distribution solution could be installed adjacent to major highways in order that trucks switch to electric and move away from internal combustion engines (ICEs). Most European nations have now completed, or are close to completing, ubiquitous first-generation smart-metering systems. The aim in each case is to ensure increased visibility of residential use and industrial use.

In common with the rest of the developed world, Europe’s electricity networks have evolved over the past century. They are now highly interconnected, synchronized systems whose stability is assured by the maintenance and monitoring of a centralized generation plant. The typical outputs of power plants in Europe are 2 GW to 4 GW. Availability of generation capacity from these large plants (whether nuclear-, coal-, gas-, or oil-powered) has been managed on a minute-by-minute basis, in order to match the instantaneous demand on the grid. The underlying telecommunications systems which support real-time control are highly reliable. They are based on a hybrid combination of diverse fiber, microwave, and copper-based connections.

Historically, it has been acceptable to treat the edges of the network largely as a passive asset. This means simply using statistical models to predict the amount of power being extracted at the periphery of the grid. However, the move toward larger-scale decentralized generation, with highly dynamic properties, is placing huge new challenges on utility companies. They now need to integrate such infrastructure in place of a legacy centralized generating plant, while still maintaining stability and reliability of energy supply.

The move away from centralized power generation has been pronounced. There are typically 30 to 60 such centralized power generation facilities in each country throughout Europe. The shift is toward a widely distributed greater number of smaller renewable facilities. This is now presenting significant challenges in terms of both the monitoring and control of complex utility infrastructures.

The number of devices requiring real-time control and SCADA-type data is likely to increase at least 10-fold over the coming decade. The amount of data required from each of these installations is expected to increase by perhaps 100 times. In fact, the requirements are no longer simple on/off commands but need to comprise high resolution values, that is, power factor, temperature, harmonic content, and waveform capture. Added to this huge increase in required data payload is the additional overhead, since the necessary cybersecurity measures (such as encryption) aim to prevent harmful and malicious activity inside the network.

When all of these considerations are combined, it is clear that utility telecommunications networks are facing an increase in complexity. They are seeing a new requirement: dramatically increased capability, of at least two orders of magnitude and more likely, three orders according to some estimates.

The telecommunications solutions that have served the utility sector quite effectively for the previous century will not scale to meet these new requirements — either from a technical perspective or an economic perspective. Although highly effective for the legacy scenario, many of the existing solutions are proprietary in nature. This leaves a whole range of unsolved legacy issues — technical obsolescence; vendor lock-in; and interoperability challenges to name but a few.

EU-based utilities are coming to understand the need for a new and more harmonized approach to smart-grid solutions. This would be required in terms of economy of scale, standardized interfaces, workforce skillsets, and so forth. Even the relatively new advent of smart-metering solutions has been implemented in a localized manner, with solutions varying from utility to utility and country to country: power line carrier; cellular technology; proprietary narrowband radio solutions. These have all been implemented at the discretion of each individual entity, with many first generation smart-metering solutions looking like they could represent a ‘stranded asset’ in the next 5 to 10 years, depending on which connectivity technology was originally chosen.

Many of these issues are common throughout the world. They are being studied throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the United States.

However, Europe has some specific challenges with regard to the fragmentation of the energy sector and the fact that 28 separate countries still have individual telecommunications and energy regulators — and these often have differing views on the best way to solve a given problem.

This is especially important when considering, as part of the smart grid connectivity toolkit, standardized approaches to wireless-based solutions. Wireless solutions are in many cases the only cost-effective way to achieve reliable connections to a large number of widely distributed devices. The lack of a standardized radio spectrum allocation for utilities throughout Europe is a barrier to the entry of large equipment vendors. They need significant volume commitments in order to fund the research and development (R&D) work necessary to produce cost-effective solutions.

An EU market requiring 28 different variants of a chipset and products is not generally attractive to large hardware vendors. Although proprietary vendors are more willing to produce multiple variants of products in smaller quantities, they lack the commercial scale and credibility to be able to commit to such large, long term programs. This situation is in sharp contrast to the United States for instance, where agreement of a far smaller number of regulatory bodies can open up a very large market for hardware vendors and operators.

Much of the work undertaken by the European Utilities Telecom Council (EUTC) involves education and advocacy on behalf of the utility sector within various departments of the European Commission — and also at the national regulatory level in each of the 28 European states. Through multiple stakeholder engagement events and responding to consultations, the EUTC brings together expertise from thought leaders within European utilities, in order to facilitate open discussions and information sharing with regulators and policy makers on the options available for a truly effective smart grid implementation. These activities align with the desire of utilities to make a very large contribution to achieving Europe’s ambitious carbon-reduction targets without unintentional negative consequences.

The EUTC is a non-profit organization delivering education, collaboration, best practices and thought leadership in telecommunication technology to utilities, other critical infrastructure providers and regulators, ensuring efficient, secure, sustainable, and affordable smart-infrastructure solutions. EUTC membership comprises major gas and electricity transmission and distribution companies from across Europe along with vendor partners representing telecommunications suppliers focused on utility telecommunictions provision.

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