Optimizing the world’s most complex machines
Some describe the power grid as the most complex machine in the world. Power grid infrastructure management must balance power generation and power consumption because grid instability can lead to blackouts. Previously, only consumption was diversified. Today, with the growth of sustainable resources such as solar and wind energy, there is now diversity in energy generation as well as consumption. Ensuring that the power included in the grid is always balanced with the consumption from the grid requires a careful choreography process. To survive, facilities must adopt digital solutions.
This is where private networks make their mark. The network’s evolution into a cellular network brings utilities the benefits of a large and rapidly evolving ecosystem of universal sensors and devices. Security, reliability and design independence in wireless network quality are of particular value to utilities.
The journey from the power plant to your home
To pave the way for the role of wireless in modernizing the power grid, let’s first have a simplified view of the main functional aspects of the power grid (Fig. 1).
Each component of the grid must communicate with other components, a task that has become more important as utilities advance in modernizing their power grids. Wireless private networks enable facilities to achieve their goals at every step of the journey.
Link generation and distribution at the substation
Transmission substations control the power input from the power plant to the distribution network. They can be located in remote areas, far from control centers. Long range wireless communication provides communication between the transmitting substation and the established wide area network that monitors the power grid. Wireless technologies such as long range microwave can be used in place of expensive fiber upgrades or low speed links, adding improved latency and performance.
Distribution substations ensure continuity and reliability of power towards industrial, commercial and residential consumption by switching in power sources based on demand and fault detection/isolation. They are usually closer to population centers, and therefore to consumption. Private LTE improves or extends existing data connections and offerings. Wireless also adds a layer of reliability to the operational communications needed for substation monitoring and control. Many of these devices already rely on a backup public wireless network. This can now be replaced with a better designed, predictive private wireless network.
Wireless Networks – For network management and use case convergence
Modernizing the power grid includes use cases like intelligent video surveillance that require an increase in performance features — the best that an advanced wireless network can offer. Moreover, the same private wireless system that delivers superior performance also enables utilities to integrate employee devices with private enterprise features. As sensors, intelligent electronic devices (IEDs), substations, remote terminal units (RTUs) and relay systems migrate toward wireless, network management and corporate communications, they will also be integrated into the same mobile devices. With the convergence of the worlds of information technology and operational technology, utilities will see a significant reduction in operational complexity.
Remote protection is also enhanced by wireless connectivity. Remote protection monitors network status, isolates faults and prevents damage to critical parts of the power grid. Rapid response is crucial. The right mix of 4G/5G wireless low latency solutions can extend remote protection beyond the local substation to more centralized locations. The use of artificial intelligence / machine learning (AI / ML) will allow proactive isolation of errors. The development of the hardware ecosystem for wireless technologies such as 5G NR will open up further developments such as remote control of mission-critical switching infrastructure.
Remove the copper wire
Today’s substations have dedicated copper-driven lines for each primary control, running one use case at a time. To expand the substation’s capabilities, the utility must add wiring and upgrade the cable trenches connecting the switch yard to the control room. In addition to being unwieldy, these systems are representative.
Substation conversion starts with upgrading the communications infrastructure from analog to digital and upgrading the transmission between the switch yard and control room to the right mix of fiber and wireless. By modernizing the wireless power grid, we can collect more and more accurate data continuously and proactively manage disruptions.
In the control room, an indoor LTE wireless network, combined with medium-band spectrum such as the Citizens Broadband Radio Service Access License (CBRS PAL), provides higher throughput for video monitoring, high chatter and high traffic. The indoor LTE wireless can seamlessly integrate with the outdoor LTE network. Personnel communications within the control room can even be integrated with the power grid network.
Bringing power grid security, convenience and closeness to the last mile
As utilities continue to embrace power grid modernization, the reliability and security that LTE wireless technology provides will extend from power distribution to the last mile of power delivery infrastructure. The last mile is where power enters the consumer domain. It is also where safety and security becomes paramount.
Many eco-conscious and cost-conscious consumers are investing in solar panels in their homes. Consumers can now send power back to the grid and track it in near real time. What was once half-duplex is now bi-directional, with customers returning some power to the grid while consuming power from the grid. The new reality of “producer consumers,” or consumers, requires real-time feedback to ensure that the tool can successfully balance generation and demand.
New in the neighborhood – Real-time monitoring
LTE wireless technology brings a new feature to last-mile network management: real-time data. Real-time feedback from LTE wireless in the last mile allows utilities to ensure the security of the power grid and be more proactive in staying ahead of potential faults in the neighborhood network:
- Substations receive the information needed to isolate smaller parts of the neighborhood network, avoiding instability and blackouts in the larger network.
- Safety is enhanced by proactively monitoring weather-stricken infrastructure.
- Real-time analysis of consumer consumption and generation allows more efficient input of distribution power resources across transmission and distribution substations into the power grid.
Ensure adequate bandwidth in the last mile
The last mile is also where consumer traffic from smartphones and fixed wireless networks competes with utility traffic to power grid devices. Since the demand for Internet access is at its greatest here, running power grid-critical devices on a consumer smartphone network can be unreliable and expensive. The private LTE network dedicated to the power grid ensures that reliability on the power grid is not affected by the capacity consumed by competing consumer devices.
With the rapid migration of residents to the suburbs, utilities are racing to expand the existing last miles of power infrastructure. The activation time of Internet connections for New Energy Grid devices on the suburban network is faster with wireless and more reliable with licensed LTE wireless.
Secure and reliable last-mile private LTE network
Consumers, with their solar panels, are just one aspect of a complex transformation in the power utility operational landscape. Utilities ask: How do we maintain that delicate two-way conversation between production and consumption in the consumer world? How can we quickly and cost-effectively expand our infrastructure to serve new customers and better serve our existing customers? And when we open our network to consumers, how can we ensure the security of our mission-critical network?
As we’ve seen, LTE wireless technology enables new technologies and improved efficiencies that answer many utility challenges. As utilities continue to embrace power grid modernization, the reliability and security that LTE wireless technology provides will extend from power distribution to power delivery infrastructure.
Last-stage contact: the convergent cellular capillary network
We’ve seen that private wireless networks based on cellular technology serve utilities well from generation right down to the last mile. Now we get to the final step in the last mile — all sorts of multi-purpose, non-3GPP devices like smart meters are waiting for you. In the emerging smart grid, more applications also promise more devices to manage. Today’s two-way reports on energy generation and consumption will soon feature local weather reports, video monitoring, and other applications.
Today’s power grid has many purpose-built capillary grids, each optimized for a single use case. Capillary networks consist of a lattice gateway (CGW) and several devices served by that gateway. Performance, reliability, and consolidation require multi-purpose networks in the last mile. The next logical step is to integrate these access networks by leveraging the common core infrastructure provided by private LTE technology through converged cellular mesh networks.
A capillary network can be connected to the global communications infrastructure through a cellular network, which can be a wide area network or an indoor cellular solution. The gateway between the cellular network and the mesh network operates just like any other user device when this gateway is SIM-enabled.
Wireless connectivity enables smart grid
As the connected world moves toward the realm of wireless internet, an increasing number of connectivity options will be available to utilities. Wireless technology opens up new opportunities for expanded control, scale, and reliability in linking power generation and distribution. By adopting the appropriate spectrum, hardware ecosystem, and technology, a wireless network will also allow mission-critical fault location standardization, isolation, and recovery.
As the power industry strives to modernize in response to growing demand and business imperatives, mission-critical wireless networks will play a major role in enabling utilities to achieve successful power grid modernization. Ericsson partners with utilities, providing solutions that connect every component of its network, from power generation to that smart meter in your home.
There is a lot to know
This blog has given you an overview of the issues involved in network modernization, the challenges faced by utilities and the solutions offered by wireless networks in building the smart grid. But we’ve only touched the surface here.
Learn more about mission-critical wireless and the power grid modernization journey
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