The Utility of the Future

Issue 2 and Volume 116.

  By Todd Jolley, Director of Vertical Solutions for Hughes Networks Systems

Perhaps the most significant advances that will impact energy are not how it’s generated, but rather how energy is managed. Networking technologies are dramatically improving how we produce, distribute and manage our energy supply. Energy supply is moving from a centralized, producer-controlled model to one that is de-centralized and interactive with customer needs and information.

At the core of the revolution are smart networks that feed information to customers and suppliers to control energy consumption patterns. They provide data that can help suppliers deliver the right amount of energy to the right places at the right time.

Utility companies are rapidly moving toward this new energy future. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in early 2009 opened the door for nearly 500 utility companies to apply for grants to help deploy the smart grid. These advances are going to have the most immediate impacts in reducing energy costs for consumers and enhancing the security and reliability of our energy future.

Some of the most important developments are:

Intelligent multi-channel communications – Most times, getting something right 99.99 percent of the time is a job well-done, but not for utilities. Currently about 10 percent of electricity consumption requires “six 9s” of reliability (99.999999). That number is expected to increase to 60 percent by 2020. And by 2020, 10 percent will require “nine 9s” of reliability, or an average downtime of just 32 milliseconds a year.

Utilities can achieve that level of reliability by using multiple communications and networking channels that switch automatically based on availability, efficiency and cost. The utility network will seamlessly blend wireline, wireless and satellite-based communications channels to improve grid reliability and efficiency. These networks will enable pervasive energy network monitoring and digital controls, condition-based maintenance and self-heal when problems occur.

Distribution automation – Many utility companies discover outages and other problems when customers call to complain. In the future, communication points along the grid will continually monitor the performance of the grid and automatically react and deal with real-time electricity issues as they occur. These communication points – which could be a substation or a single utility pole – will manage multiple communications paths from satellite to fiber. Layering satellite communications on top of terrestrial communications will enable utilities to monitor health and status of distribution elements for pre-emptive response.

Substation automation – Power substations will be intelligent and able to communicate with the network and alert headquarters to anything from increased voltage loads to overheating to mechanical or physical disturbances. Automated substations will predict impending faults and automatically reroute electricity through other parts of the grid to present substation failure.

Smart metering I – To truly achieve a smarter grid, some 142 million homes will need to be equipped with smart meters that securely track each home’s energy use. These meters will communicate securely in real time with each other, to devices within the home and ultimately to energy management systems to track trends and anticipate demands. Through smart metering networks, utilities will be able to better anticipate demand trends enabling them to purchase just the right supply of power at just the right time.

Smart metering II – Home area networks will allow appliances to communicate with smart meters to enable reporting of consumption and demand on a per appliance basis, allowing consumers and utilities to work together to conserve energy. With user-friendly devices and an educated public, utility companies will have a better sense of who used what amount of energy and when.

Distributed generation – As power generation devices appear in the home – from solar panels to electric cars – the smart grid will be able to continually adjust and enable some homes’ meters to run ‘backwards’ and get credit for contributing and generating power back to the grid. Much like ‘cloud computing,’ smart metering will allow homes to be power stations.

An ‘always connected’ workforce – Utility repair trucks will be connected to the central office not just by cell phone but with GPS tracking and high speed private wireless connections. When outages happen, crews know exactly where equipment and service skills are available to quickly address outages and service issues. By getting the right person to the right place at the right time with the right equipment, utilities will save time, money and energy.

“On the spot” telerepair – Through 24/7 high speed mobile network connections, service professionals will be able to transmit data, photos and videos “on the spot.” Crews can share information with headquarters and technical staff and quickly diagnose problems so that power is restored in the most effective manner.

Mobile inventory management – Utility professionals will operate “intelligent” service vehicles. Dispatchers will know in real time which vehicles have the right parts, technical equipment, and tools that are required for a specific service call. Service teams will be (re)routed in real time to minimize trips and dramatically improve response times.

Blending is key – By applying current communications and networking technologies to existing energy utilities’ infrastructures, a new era of more efficient, more reliable and less costly energy is being ushered in.

The ideal smart network is one in which wireline will facilitate critical switching and corporate networking, wireless will facilitate much of the AMI and SCADA backhaul requirements and mobility, and satellite will facilitate reaching 100 percent of the network in hard-to-reach areas.

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