Utility Telecommunications - Is Your Strategy Preparing You For An Integrated Grid?

Matt Wakefield, Director, Information, Communication and Cyber Security, EPRI
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Matt Wakefield, Director, Information, Communication and Cyber Security, EPRI

In every electric utility you’ll find a group of engineers working to deploy some new technology or applicationsolution to enhance the reliability and performance of the electric grid. Invariably, that technology is either dependent on or enhanced by telecommunications to transport status and/or control data. These solutions often include a telecommunication technology that exactlymeets the needs of that solution.

  Each network, by its expansion of a utility’s attack surface, introduces more potential for cyber vulnerability 

Although this is a simplified and wide-spread example with what is considered a positive outcome, is this a good strategy for the long term? As Winston Churchill said, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Here at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), we see the results of this scenario playing out in the electric industry.There is a proliferation of function-specific telecommunicationsnetworks deployedto support substation communications, smart meters,Mobile Workforce applications, Customer Engagement programs, advanced sensors for the transmission grid, and the list goes on.

Every type of wired, wireless, public and private telecommunications technology has been implemented by the electric industry. Are utilities willing to try anything? It may seem so, but it’s a costly strategy. Each network requires specialized skills and equipment for ongoing administration and maintenance. Each network, by its expansion of a utility’s attack surface, introduces more potential for cyber vulnerability. There are signs implying that a strategic transformation is occurring in the utility telecommunications space. As CIOs get more engaged on the operational side of electric utility business, they are recognizing the importance of unified and consolidated telecommunications infrastructure as part of their overall corporate strategy. The days of function-specific telecommunication systems may be a thing of the past as utilities define requirements for an Integrated Grid where multiple operational functions are served by a single or small number of telecommunication systems.

A potent combination of electric industry drivers and emerging telecommunication technologies are causing CIOs and other utility executives to rethink telecommunications infrastructure as strategic assets worthy of special planning and investment.

Dynamic Changes in Electric Industry

There are several electric industry drivers resulting in increased telecommunications requirements.

• Distributed Energy Resources: The increasing amount of distributed energy resources (DER), in particular solar photovoltaics (PV) assets creates an industry-wide need for new telecommunications networks capable of real-time and near-real-time monitoring and control functions in low-voltage grids. For example, in Japan, the incentives to promote renewable energy have resulted in a rapid adoption of PV.New rules went into place in 2015 that oblige utilities to install remote control systems to manage PV assets on an hourly basis for up to 360 hours-per-year to support grid reliability. Utilities around the world are challenged to manage (or “curtail” – in industry parlance) PV assets to maximize the overall benefit of this renewable generation as a year-round resource. What does this mean from a telecommunications perspective?

• Situational Awareness: Modern economies and societies cannot exist without electricity. The impacts of local-to-widespread blackouts place increasing pressure on utilities to monitor grid stability at a millisecond level. Well-designed, highly robust, resilient, and reliable telecommunications infrastructure provides that granular degree of visibility.

• Smart Meters: Growing deployments of intelligent devices called smart meters improve grid visibility and reliability but also create new volumes and velocities of data that strain existing telecommunications networks.  As other intelligent devices are adopted at the “edge of the grid,” there will be an increased need for the reliable transport and storage of data. 

Telecommunications Options – the Industry Giveth and Taketh Away

There are also telecommunication drivers impacting the industry.

• Telecommunication carriers have announced plans to discontinue by 2020 frame relay and time-division multiplexing (TDM) services which arewidely used by the electric industry. Some utilities have made or are making the transition to packet-based systems, but many others are just beginning their investigations into alternatives and the window of opportunity to make that transition is shrinking.

• New operational concepts and technologies derived from data centers may help utilities cost-effectively manage their telecommunications infrastructures and improve overall cyber security management as well.

• Machine to machine (M2M) trends of reduced microprocessor and data transport/storage costs and increased availability of fixed and mobile intelligent devices creates significant opportunities for utilities to disseminate intelligence on a wide scale within their electric grids. But telecommunications networks will be responsible for securely transporting the data created by these devices.

The Opportunity

The combination of these industry drivers and emerging technologies creates an opportunity for electric utilities to take a new look at their corporate telecommunicationsinvestments as strategic assets, and we’re committed to assist in those efforts.

EPRI has an Information, Communication and Cyber Security (ICCS) executive committee comprised of CIOs and senior IT/security leaders from electric utilities around the world to advise us on R&D priorities. This group has identified utility telecommunication road-mapping as one of their most critical needs. They’ve also identified six R&D priorities that are now the foundation of EPRI’s Telecommunication Initiative research program. They are:

• Migration from serial-to-packet-based telecommunications infrastructure
• The strategic deployment of fiber
• Leveraging licensed, unlicensed, and shared spectrum for utility networks
• Analysis of public network operations and network sharing
• Application of broadband connectivity at the edge of the grid and with consumers
• Integrated telecommunications network management approaches and technologies

This project willdevelop information and insights about these six challengesand establish a foundation for EPRI’s ongoing telecommunications research for the electric industry.

As Metcalfe’s law states, the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users to the system. With today’s pace of change and the need to be agile, driving towards a single telecommunications infrastructure creates an exciting opportunity for utilities to maximize value by expanding the use and number of connected devices in unified and consolidated telecommunications networks. The potential benefits of decreased costs, increased productivity, improved situational awareness and reduced risks offer compelling arguments to invest in telecommunications infrastructure as the strategic assets they are.

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