There is no question the UK’s Transmission and Distribution Network Operators (TNOs & DNOs) must deploy a range of sophisticated communications technologies and platforms if they are to have a viable future. As consumer demands change, community grids and two-way power flows emerge, and new loads like electric vehicles become increasingly commonplace, communications systems will be the connective tissue that supports the framework of the electricity networks.

Network operators must get this right. Disruptive forces are visible to all and will lead to transformation of the traditional utility business model without efficient and forward-thinking deployment of advanced communications systems. Smart, strategic investment in communications technologies could put utilities in control of the distribution system operator (DSO) transition, keeping them in prime position as integral players. In the near-term, these systems can help utilities prepare for RIIO 2 and evidence success under the current regime, as Ofgem’s newest requirements drive more efficient utility operations.

Many communications networks are at the end of their useful lives or are no longer fit for purpose and these technologies run the gamut in maturity and applicability for utilities. The menu of new solutions available to utilities is complex and diverse. It includes mature technologies like fibre-optic cables and point-to-point microwave systems and new emerging technologies like private LTE systems or 5G technology. One size cannot and should not fit all.

Communication systems of the future will need to be high bandwidth at the core with latency to the edge appropriate for given applications. Characteristics of the network should match the utility and use cases – including the expected reliability and useful life. It is likely that we will see a sophisticated portfolio of solutions that enable what utilities desire. This will undoubtedly be a hybrid approach generally following the 80/20 rule in which one solution will work for 80 percent of assets while engineering solutions for the remaining 20 percent will be a difficult and painstaking process requiring a varying approach based on specific asset conditions.

With the expected performance needs of future applications, current platforms and technologies in use throughout the U.K. are likely to be inefficient and overextended in the not-too-distant future. Everything that requires communications endpoints (such as sensors and connected devices) is increasing at an incredible pace.  It is possible we could be limiting our abilities to deliver services and capabilities if we only utilise communications technologies and systems we are comfortable with.

Key drivers of future communications system investments include:

  • Newly active energy consumers and prosumers (those who both consume and produce energy for the grid) are creating new customer demands.
  • New demands for efficiency coupled with downward pressure on cost of service from Ofgem.
  • New devices and endpoints including sensors and distributed energy resources.
  • New business requirements for the DSO.
  • Continued demand for improved reliability.
  • The need to account for aging infrastructure and end-of-life technology.

Advanced communications systems will be crucial in addressing all three elements of the energy trilemma – energy security, energy equity (accessibility and affordability), and environmental sustainability. The vision of a fully-integrated and intelligent grid that offers a means to control production and consumption of energy in real time requires an advanced communications system. This must seamlessly support the integration of distributed generation sources to help provide energy security, affordability and sustainability - thereby addressing the trilemma.

As the electricity network evolves to a platform that can detect, accept and control decentralised production assets as well as consumption (e.g. controlling times when electric vehicles may charge), communication systems must be equally sophisticated to allow information to flow as needed in multiple directions. This requires a holistic, ubiquitous communication platform that enables operation of a power system as a whole, rather than on a per-device basis.

In addition, advanced communications systems must be designed to be cyber secure, reliable, resilient, cost effective and scalable.

  • Power delivery must be protected by defense-in-depth security strategies. Cyber security must be built into all equipment and devices as the network is only as strong as its weakest link.
  • Reliability must be protected through communication links that are engineered as a well-optimised network with layered network architecture, differentiated for low, medium and high voltages. This will be technically challenging due to differences in geography, topology, climate and asset density.
  • Resilience must be addressed through a communications network that is hardened for the environment devices will live in. Factors such as extreme temperatures, electromagnetic interference, dust and vibration can kill sensitive technologies if not designed to account for those conditions. Utilities must have the responsibility and the authority to restore their systems when disrupted.
  • Systems must additionally be designed to justify costs. A business case must be developed for any use of communication technologies, and if a particular technology does not provide clear benefits to the end users, it should not make the cut. However, this will not be a one-size-fits-all exercise. Applications and use cases will be different so a variety of needs must be accommodated.
  • Finally, new applications and services must be enabled by the platform that exists today, as well as where the industry is poised to go in the future. We may only have a projected idea of what the future platform will look like, so systems should not be based on proprietary protocols and services. Rather, they must have the flexibility to allow new applications to be bolted on at the edge of a system we may only be able to loosely imagine today.

In today’s mission-critical environment of real-time data transfer, communication is essential to keeping the lights on. As utilities offer higher levels of reliability, sustainability and customer service - communications will be the platform that enables them to be more efficient and effective at providing service.

There are many trending topics with potential negative and positive impacts for utilities. Without doubt, the evolution of future communications platforms towards a more sophisticated flexible system must be at the heart of our industry’s thinking.

 

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Jeffrey Casey is business development director for Burns & McDonnell’s office in the United Kingdom. He brings a particular focus on the technology deployment needed to support the disruptive challenges facing the electric utility industry in the U.K.