the bulletin

Grid Communications Network of Private Networks

By Andrew Bordine, Vice President Energy Markets & Innovation, Anterix

As utilities across the country plan private wireless communications networks to enable the modern grid and accommodate an increasing number of distributed energy resources, many are envisioning a future where they realize additional value by collaboratively adopting a standard technology such as LTE to enable a broader “network of private networks.”  Before they get too far down the road toward design and construction, utilities should take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to collectively enable improved efficiency, safety, and functionality nationwide by coordinating their wireless broadband planning and network implementations.

The modern grid is “smart” because it produces, analyzes, and acts upon vast amounts of data.  These data are created by sensors placed throughout the grid and are analyzed by a control system that determines what action, if any, the data require.  In some cases, the control system can issue a command to a smart device installed in the field to take that action.  For all of this to work, the sensor data need to be communicated to the control system, and the command data need to be communicated back to the field devices for execution.  In other words, the smart grid needs a broadband data communications network—one that is secure, robust, private, and reliable.  That network must have substantial capacity and speed (low latency) so that enormous amounts of critical data can be communicated almost instantaneously.  And in most cases, utilities will require both wired and wireless capabilities to meet their varied critical communications needs.

Many utilities are currently evaluating their options for the wireless portion of their smart grid communications capability.  Key variables include the wireless network technology and the spectrum (radio frequency bands) that these private networks will use. 

Wireless networks that use the same technology and spectrum can form a “network of private networks” in which a device from one network can, with appropriate authorization, communicate on a visited network.  Though a seemingly simple concept, implementation would enable utilities to realize a wide range of benefits that grow with each additional utility added to the collective.  These benefits include the enhanced ability to provide mutual aid in the event of disasters, scale and scope benefits facilitating the purchase of equipment and research and development efforts, and the ability to make grid smarter and more responsive by sharing LTE expertise.  Utilities that participate in such a collective effort will benefit from an industry-wide technology ecosystem rather than the isolated, expensive, and poorly supported fate of one-off deployments.  

The benefits of a network of private wireless broadband networks (i.e. deployment of the same technology on the same spectrum) span the range from the very short-term to applications yet to be imagined.  With increasing grid complexity, mutual aid repair crews can benefit from direct, mobile access to real-time data from grid-monitoring and control systems of the aid-requesting utility.  Neighboring electric utilities that deploy communications networks that can work together to create new revenue streams by providing secure broadband services to water and gas utilities that serve areas that overlap both electric utilities’ service territories. 

In the interim, a network of private networks could facilitate the development of real-time market-based grid management across utility service territories.  A network of private networks would allow Electric vehicles (EVs) to become more prevalent, raising the importance of protecting privacy while tracking EVs to forecast both the electricity they carry and the charge they will need as they move across utility service areas.

In the long-term, as current cellular technology evolves and “5G” becomes widespread and matures, a new wave of utility applications can be expected, designed to take advantage of 5G’s advanced capabilities.  Just as commercial carrier networks work together to enable the seamless consumer experience and boundless innovation we enjoy on our smartphones today, a network of private utility networks can bring the electricity industry a plethora of new ways to provide power safely, securely, efficiently, and reliably to its customers.

The idea that the electric utility industry should coordinate to enable their wireless networks to work together is gaining traction with industry leaders and policymakers.  "As part of the overall U.S. electric industry, we are prepared to share the knowledge gained from the development of our own mission-critical LTE network with other utilities," stated Southern Linc President Tami Barron.  "Utilities have a long history of working together, and collectively, a network of utility broadband networks will provide a powerful benefit to the industry as a whole."

Similarly, in announcing a pilot of LTE technology in the 900 MHz band, Gil Quiniones, President and CEO of New York Power Authority said, “We believe that collective action by the utility sector embracing private LTE will lead to a broader range of benefits both for utilities and our customers.”

And the Southern States Energy Board, a non-profit interstate compact created by federal law and comprised of 18 southern states and territories, recently endorsed this very concept.  In a resolution adopted unanimously in September, the Board encouraged “the region’s utilities that deploy private wireless broadband networks for grid-management communications to coordinate their planning, and Public Utility Commissions to facilitate such planning, to adopt a common spectrum band and technology for such networks to enable wireless network interoperability, increased functionality, and cost savings across the region.”

The electric utility industry does not frequently have an opportunity to look to the future and set out on a beneficial, visionary path through industry-wide collaboration.  For a limited period, during the planning of private wireless broadband networks, but before substantial deployment, the industry will have that chance.  For its own benefit and that of its customers, it should not let the opportunity pass by.