Smart power: Putting intelligence into the grid

03 March 2017

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The business of distributing power is changing fast. Utilities are deploying smart grid technologies to achieve better reliability and efficiency, but they need the right networking solution to support their efforts and help drive them to the next level.

Utility companies are having to evolve fast as they adapt to the opportunities and challenges of renewable energy. They find themselves under both regulatory and cost pressure as they seek to meet green requirements while safeguarding their profitability.

The very way in which they gather and sell energy is changing. A traditional utility distribution grid draws energy from conventional end points such as power generation stations, and then delivers it to customers. But in a greener world there is a wealth of alternative energy sources that sit outside this model. Efficient ways must be found to bring solar panels, wind turbines and wave power into the mix. 

Utilities must not only reach out to a far broader range of energy sources than has historically been the case, they must also factor in a much wider geographic distribution of end points than they are used to. This necessitates a smarter and more flexible type of grid. 

It is vital for any smart energy distribution strategy to be supported by an intelligent data networking solution. The network connectivity that has to date been adequate for the task of linking every end point on a grid is no longer enough on its own. The future lies in a more versatile and hybridised networking solution that reaches every device on the grid. The solution must feature reliability, security, scalability and intelligence.

As we enter the era of the Internet of Things, all end points on a power grid, from turbines to solar panels, will need to communicate their status back to a central point in real time. Devices will also need to talk to each other, so that the balance of the load and the optimisation of the delivery and distribution of power can be automated. 

Modernising the field area network that is providing communications in the distribution grid is a must for utilities that want to be able to realise the benefit of the smart grid, argues Fai Lam, Marketing Director, IP/Optical Networks with Nokia: "At Nokia we have mission-critical networking experience and expertise in this area," he says. "We have been helping utilities to modernise the wide area network that is connecting their substations to their operations centre. However beyond these substations, communication has been lacking."

Utilities, he says, now need to advance their capabilities so that they can take advantage of the opportunities of renewable energy, and to do that they need communications networks that are much more capable: "That is what Nokia is bringing to market," he explains. "We are empowering those utilities to meet their challenges using our extensive track record in networking technology."

To solve this challenge, Nokia has introduced the 7705 SAR-Hm, a purpose-built, feature-rich LTE/3G wireless router that will modernise utility distribution networks. This latest addition to the Nokia Service Routing portfolio blends IP/MPLS and LTE/3G technologies to provide state-of-the-art wireless connectivity for all devices on a grid, even those located deep in a distribution network. Freed up from traditional network constrictions, utilities can introduce new smart grid applications, including distribution automation, advanced metering and the integration of renewable energy sources. The new router also lays the foundation for the massive increase in field device density that can be expected in the wake of the Internet of Things.

This innovation stems directly from Nokia’s extensive track record both in providing utilities with up to date solutions and its heritage in all types of data networking, says Lam: "Nokia is an established leader in IP/MPLS wide area networks, providing the technology today to 120 or more utility companies," he says. "We are also a leader in wireless connectivity. If you marry the two, what you get is the reach of LTE plus all the benefits of IP/MPLS."

Many power utilities currently use narrowband or proprietary wireless solutions to connect their field devices to each other and the control centre. Most remote devices have no connectivity at all. Without the ability to scale and manage the network, remote monitoring and control of devices is challenging, costly and extremely difficult to operate and deploy. 

"Nokia has applied its experience in deploying secure IP/MPLS networks and 3G/LTE to extend the reach of utilities’ communications networks with this solution," adds Lam. "Utilities will now have high capacity connectivity in their power distribution grids and directly into field devices, as well as the highest levels of reliability, security and scalability for mission-critical applications and services."The benefits of an intelligent smart grid extend to better visibility and better reliability for the utility, and better efficiency too: "For example it will give the utility the ability to detect outages better," claims Lam. "Traditionally power is delivered by the utility to their customer, but now the dynamic is more complicated with power coming from a greater range of sources, and the customer perhaps even generating power themselves. Compensating for voltage in the network is not just a matter of measuring usage by the customer, but necessitates intelligence within the grid. Without the right communication, that intelligence cannot be enabled. There are cost implications too, with utilities better able to predict demand and create more accurate predictions for peak load."

With Nokia as a partner, utilities can help to future-proof their operations. As the smart grid concept gains ground, they will face increased proliferation in the number of field devices they need to connect and manage. This includes integrating existing renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind farms, which are putting new demands on the electrical distribution system, and makes allowances for the addition of future devices that may not have been invented yet.

"It’s not just about building a network to satisfy today’s network requirements, but having a network that allows growth in the future," says Lam. "It allows for further applications and innovations and for future traffic volumes as well. We’ve been working with utilities and other industry sectors for a long time, enabling better communications. This is a good example of the new Nokia leveraging strengths in IP/MPLS and 3G/LTE technologies."

Power utilities are in the midst of a significant transformation as they gear up to meet new market forces, green environmental regulations and disruptive energy technologies, argues Lam: "Grid reliability, power quality and automation are all key areas that will require improved field area networks. We are excited to offer our utilities customers a wireless way to extend the proven, secure and reliable IP/MPLS services of our service router portfolio. This will not only allow them to modernize their field area operations with more automation and monitoring for improved grid reliability and power quality, it will position them well to meet tomorrow’s challenges and opportunities."   

This new solution from Nokia is not just about future developments, but real life present day challenges. In the US, Nokia has already worked with AT&T to introduce a private LTE solution for utilities, leveraging the spectrum that the giant carrier has available to lease to utilities. This solution has already garnered a lot of market interest.

It is a solution with clear applications for other vertical markets, says Lam: "This solution is applicable to other vertical sectors beyond power, for example within smart cities to manage street lighting," he says. "It could also be used in industries like mining where it could be a way to introduce more automation into their operations to optimise production. This is a great first example of what is to come from Nokia."

It is not hard to imagine how the Nokia 7705 SAR-Hm could be leveraged by any industry sector requiring wireless and wired connectivity brought together to support field operations, including oil and gas, mining, public safety, government, transportation and aviation. The innovation is all about Nokia’s continued investment in its IP/MPLS routing portfolio, including the Cloud Packet Core for verticals in 2016, and is in keeping with the company’s strategy to broaden its footprint beyond service providers, to vertical markets needing high-performing, reliable and secure networks.

Some facts about Nokia’s new 7705 SAR-Hm router 

• Utilities can now use wireless infrastructure to introduce IP/MPLS services to locations and devices that previously lacked adequate connectivity

• The Nokia 7705 SAR-Hm enables applications that improve grid reliability and power quality, allowing for automation and supports green energy initiatives

• The 7705 SAR-Hm uses standards-based LTE/3G and IP/MPLS technologies, and the award winning Network Group Encryption (NGE), to get the highest levels of reliability, security and scalability for mission-critical applications and services and to protect against cyber attacks

• With this platform, the secure and reliable IP/MPLS services of the Nokia Service Router portfolio are extended with LTE/3G and Wi-Fi

• The 7705 SAR-Hm expands Nokia’s mission critical WAN solution set, already deployed in over 600 industry customers globally

Topics: Nokia, smart power, Capacity magazine, utility distribution grid, smart energy