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Plugging Into Smarter Grid Technology

Jan. 25, 2023
Will the next generation of communications technology push the smart grid into its next transition?

Just what do we mean by saying we have a smart grid? Well, it probably depends on the perspective of the person answering. Surprisingly some experts report a large number of the power industry’s stakeholders identify the smart grid as being exclusively smart meters. They are convinced that smart grid technology is solely AMI (automated metering infrastructure), which points out what a good job the suppliers of AMI technology have done for product identification.

They may be missing the point a little, but that’s okay. After all AMI has played an important role in getting us plugged into grid smartness. It might help if the industry had some reference points to mark where it has been and where it’s going. Maybe AMI would be a good starting point that could be called smart grid 1.0. Case in point, the industrial revolution has benefited from such designations. It currently is at 4.0. Also cellular technology has used designations as a successful marketing tool. We moved to 5G (fifth generation) smart phones a few years ago and 4G phones were cycled into a desk drawer.

Technological Push

If AMI defines smart grid 1.0 what would the next reference point be? Possibly smart grid 2.0 could be the movement to the digital utility, and 3.0 might be defined by something like digital twin automation. Perhaps some standards organization such as IEEE’s “Power and Energy Society” will pick up the challenge. What better way to mark each change from one smart grid era to the next than to identify the transition point. This would be especially helpful as the boundaries between the physical and cyber worlds blur and the industry moves further into virtual and augment reality systems.

What started this contemplating was a series of studies, reports, and white papers speculating that the next generation of the smart grid technology is here, but it’s getting harder keeping track of it. The smart grid is all about connectivity and using industrial 5G technology for that connectivity is going to boost the grid’s abilities.

This is particularly true with field area network technology. Industrial 5G has more to offer IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) technology. That is seen as being extremely important when it comes to making the grid smarter, but more on that later. One aspect that stood out in these publications was integrating industrial 5G cellular technology into wireless mesh network (WMN) technologies. But recognize, this is not the familiar AMI meter meshes. Those meshes use low frequency narrowband technology with limited data capacity.

The WMN being discussed is powered by industrial 5G technology, which is designed for the conditions found in industrial ecosystems. The proponents say industrial 5G makes these WMNs more flexible, autonomous, and efficient. Industrial 5G also provides ultra-low latency, a wide selection of frequencies, large bandwidths, and multiple bands, to name a few capabilities.

Simply put, a WMN is a local area network of connected numerous devices via multi-tier communication architectures. It’s a network of nodes that are linked to each other via Wi-Fi, LTE, radio, cellular, etc. They can operate through one path or multiple pathways, it’s up to the user, but there is one critical point that demands attention. Like all elements of the smart grid, interoperability is a major consideration. Utilities have to be able to mix and match hardware especially as WMNs grow in use.  

Mixing manufacturers doesn’t have to a big deal thanks to open standards. Early in the smart grid deployment proprietary systems impeded the wide scale adoption of the technology. WMNs need to be specified using open standards such as TCP/UDP/IP, IEEE 802.11 along with other 802 and IETF standards to name a few. Protocols are important because these systems will be operating with the utility’s existing components and elements. It’s worthwhile spending some upfront time specifying how the WMN is expected to operate on the utility’s network.

Granted, this is an oversimplification, but it gives a starting pointing with some basic fundamentals. It’s a complex technology, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. There is a lot of help available from manufacturers who supply this equipment such as Cisco, Ericsson, Hitachi Energy, General Electric, Siemens Energy to name a few. 

Power of IIot

There is a growing interest in plugging IIoT technology into the smart grid using these 5G powered WMNs. Ever since OT (operational technology) converged with IT (information technology) it has seemed like IIoT is the logical direction for modernizing the power grid. Keep in mind, there are a lot of older existing devices on both the transmission system and the distribution network that gather some data, but they keep it to themselves.

If that data can be extracted, it brings the IT/OT convergence to the remotest corners of the grid. Combining 5G technology and IIoT can bring about a new era of grid automation, but there are many questions about doing this. “Charging Ahead” contacted Mike Dulaney, Global Head of Wireless Sales at Hitachi Energy, and Tore Gillbrand, vice president of Global Product Management for Hitachi Energy for more insights into this advanced approach to networking.

Dulaney started off the discussion with a quick review of multi-tier communication platforms saying, “Hitachi Energy provides complete high performance communication packages with their Tropos broadband mesh networks. A Tropos network is organized into nodes, gateways, and clients by Tropos device’s ability to be configured as an element is needed.”

Dulaney continued, “Hitachi Energy’s Tropos broadband mesh product portfolio uses broadband, fiber, ethernet, etc. for two way communication links with equipment in the field, and in the fourth quarter of 2022 Hitachi Energy introduced a new cellular router to expand their fifth generation wireless networking capabilities and support IIoT applications for utilities. The Tropos TRO610 was designed for a wider variety of edge computing applications and devices like this are making it happen. It is compatible with 3G, 4G, and 5G cellular networks that are found worldwide. It also provides utilities with an efficient, cost effective method for modernizing older devices.”  

Gillbrand explained, “The TRO610 provides a means to connect all of a utility’s assets even if they were built and installed before today’s stronger cybersecurity standards were issued. These are the devices found on the grid’s distribution network’s such as distribution capacitor controllers, volt/VAR regulators, load breaks, reclosers, etc. that have been in service for 20 years or more. The Tropos operating system is designed to deliver the same security options over the wireless network that is available over the hardwired network.”

Gillbrand resumed, “The manufacturers of power grid equipment have a long history of building quality products. These devices are built to last, and many are still in service long after the standards they were manufactured by are out of date. That is why it’s important to be able to update these devices without having to replace them. They still have more years of service in them. This is where the TRO610 comes in. The small form factor product has been designed to allow it to be installed wherever there is space for it. In many devices that means mounting it on the door of the control cabinet and poking an antenna through the cabinet. They can also be mounted on the top of a utility pole or any other suitable space – they are very adaptable.”

Gillbrand continued saying, “When combined with the TRO620 cellular mesh router, the utility has a secure connection over public cellular infrastructures like AT&T, Verizon,  US Cellular etc. Or they can connect to private cellular infrastructures using CBRS or Anterix like those our utility customers are planning on building for themselves. Many utilities don’t want to be faced with a technology obsolescence cycle so common with commercial cellular networks. It usually has a shorter lifecycle than they are comfortable with, and this is an option. Whichever infrastructure the customer selects, this approach provides them a fully distributed mesh network that delivers enhanced capacity, greater resiliency, and state-of-the-art security with improved scalability.”

What Next

WMNs infused with industrial 5G technology make plugging smarter components into the smart grid easier and faster, which is needed as we try to improve physical security of the power grid. In addition, manufacturers are able to convert older devices into smart grid data contributing elements by applying IIoT technology. That in turn makes the power system smarter. The decentralized WMN approach adds to the power system’s flexibility and removes data bottlenecks along with single points of failure.

Is this the next transition point for the smart grid? It could be, but whatever develops there is one certainty. Communications technology is playing a key element in making the smart grid smarter. WMNs make good business sense; because of the connectivity, they improve applications like substation automation, management of renewable energy sources, outage management, and a many others. Whatever happens, it’s going to be challenging.

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