- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week voted to make six megahertz of low-band spectrum available for the development of critical wireless broadband technologies and services, clearing the way for electric utilities to develop their own communications networks that will enable modernization at the edge of the grid.
- "We're at a crossroads today," as current networks reach their functional limits, Ameren Director of Network Engineering John Hughes told Utility Dive. In its Missouri and Illinois territories, the utility is developing a new broadband network to enable drone inspections, closed-circuit monitoring and other resiliency use cases that currently are available only where there is fiber optic infrastructure.
- Experts say developing their own communication networks could be a boon to utilities' bottom line as well as grid stability. The new networks are likely to be considered capital expenses (CapEx) where power companies can earn a rate of return, as opposed to operating expenses (OpEx) spent to utilize public networks.
Ameren will be among the first utilities to develop its own LTE network, but experts say it will become a more common practice as the benefits become apparent.
Southern Co. has also been experimenting with the new technology.
"It's clear to me we're going to continue to grow the use of this network," Tami Barron, president and CEO of Southern Co.’s Southern Linc, said in a May 20 webinar hosted by the law firm Dentons.
Barron said that at one point, Southern had more than a dozen networks it used for grid controls and monitoring. But the number of monitored devices has almost doubled on Southern's system in recent years, she said, so the utility "is working hard to collapse those [networks] into LTE."
"Reliability, resiliency and security were three pillars for deploying this network," Barron said. "Economics are a fourth pillar. ... When you can use CapEx instead of OpEx, it's preferred from a regulatory strategy."
Ameren officials say the development of a private LTE communications network could enable greater use of distributed resources and improved system efficiency, ultimately lowering carbon emissions.
"Ameren, like a lot of utilities, supports a multitude of solutions in their field area networks where they need wireless," said Hughes. "Moving forward as we life-cycle out some legacy equipment, we're looking for a standard that has a go-forward roadmap. We've opted to look at private LTE, which provides utility assurance, greater cybersecurity, and resilience."
Hughes told Utility Dive that Ameren partnered with Anterix, Nokia and AT&T to develop private network proofs of concepts in Illinois, and has tested 14 use cases.
"Every one proved effective and are up and running in a pilot environment," Hughes said. As the utility develops the project, "every one of these aspects will be competitively bid."
Ameren plans to construct the network next year, and is currently going through the business case and engineering development processes.
"It will give us greater bandwidth to do more drone, CCTV applications. We have those in big substations where you're already connected by fiber optic, but we're seeing communications needs on the grid edge," Hughes said. "When you aggregate into one format, it's a very cost-effective solution. You can make infrastructure investments to the utility grid while advancing customer capabilities. It's a capital investment."
Anterix has signed a letter of intent with Ameren for the long-term lease of 900 Mhz broadband spectrum to enable Ameren to deploy its private LTE network.
Anterix bought the spectrum five years ago through an FCC auction, and the commission's May 13 vote capped a lengthy process to reorganize its use. The 900 Mhz spectrum was previously used by utilities and other infrastructure providers for simpler, aging communications. It is the first broadband spectrum available for private networks.
"All of these individual, single-purpose networks that utilities have today have the opportunity to converge onto a single, much more reliable and secure LTE network," Anterix President Rob Schwartz told Utility Dive. "Telecom is becoming an essential element for utilities."
According to Ameren's Hughes, the new networks should improve outage restoration times, reliability and grid automation.
"Grid automation comes from access to communications networks. We also think you'll see greater efficiency in production and delivery of power," said Hughes. "If you drive enough energy efficiency, you can lower demand for generation, which has a good carbon reduction story. There is a long-term but direct alignment with what we're trying to do as an industry."
Ameren was an advocate of the 900 Mhz broadband decision for multiple reasons. "It gives critical energy infrastructure the opportunity to own and manage the spectrum," said Hughes. "A lot of utilities are going that way. And it is a need you're going to see across multiple critical industries."