The following is a contributed article by Joy Ditto, president and CEO of the Utilities Technology Council.
When most people think of electricity infrastructure, they often think of the power plants, transmission towers, power lines and poles that ensure electricity is delivered to every home and business in the country.
What many industry watchers do not realize, however, is that all along this infrastructure, utilities deploy a sophisticated array of telecommunications networks throughout their service territories to underpin the reliable, safe, and efficient delivery of electricity. Often invisible or overlooked, these communications networks provide critical situational awareness, underpin safety functions, and enable crews to safely repair and restore electricity after storms.
"[U]tility communications networks are not only critical for day-to-day reliability needs, but also to support the greater deployment of distributed energy resources, smart meters and other technologies..."
The Utilities Technology Council (UTC) recently performed a survey of utilities from across the country to get a clearer sense as to the kinds of communications technologies utilities deploy and for what purposes they are used. The results of this survey demonstrate that electric utilities own and operate their own telecommunications networks to run a variety of mission-critical functions necessary to safely, reliably and efficiently deliver electricity.
As this survey was in the final stages of production in late March, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy hosted a joint technical conference on cybersecurity. Utility communications networks became a central focal point during the discussion, which made clear that a greater understanding of these networks — how they are built, owned and managed — is needed. This survey answers those questions.
As the conclusions make clear, utility communications networks are not only critical for day-to-day reliability needs, but also to support the greater deployment of distributed energy resources, smart meters and other technologies to enable the more flexible grids associated with the transition to "Utility 2.0" or the utility of the future.
"[M]ost of the surveyed utilities have chosen to build their own 'private' communications networks, relying on the large commercial carriers only for certain segments, if at all."
Because of these challenges, utilities' bandwidth needs are growing.
The survey, publicly available here for the first time, covers all sizes and ownership types of utilities, from large investor-owned companies serving millions of people to smaller, publicly and cooperatively owned utilities providing electricity to smaller towns and rural areas.
In all, the responding utilities serve approximately 50% of residential electric meters in the U.S. A few Canadian provincial utilities responded as well, given that the U.S. and Canada share bulk power system assets and operations.
Although each utility surveyed has its own unique needs, every single one reported that communications are essential to its purpose.
The survey found that utilities' bandwidth needs are growing as they modernize their systems and invest in communications networks.
"[G]rid modernization and streaming video drive this medium-term growth in bandwidth consumption," the survey finds.
"[T]hree-fourths of the respondents owned 80% or more of their networks, while only one small public power utility surveyed reported owning less than 40% of its telecommunications network."
"Future bandwidth requirements are based upon current grid modernization projects, typically having a 5-10-year outlook, so bandwidth projections can be considered stable. Thus, a private network with a known capital and operational expenditure may present a stronger financial case than relying upon carrier-provided services."
Importantly, most of the surveyed utilities have chosen to build their own "private" communications networks, relying on the large commercial carriers only for certain segments, if at all. This is because commercial providers have historically not provided the level of reliability and coverage needed by electric utilities.
Indeed, the survey found that three-fourths of the respondents owned 80% or more of their networks, while only one small public power utility surveyed reported owning less than 40% of its telecommunications network.
"Whereas telecommunications carriers design their networks as profit centers, utilities' private networks are designed primarily for availability, and are treated as a cost of doing business," the survey found. "Utilities will, from time to time, use carrier-provided services when those services better fit a specific use case, such as remote locations where build-out of a private network cannot be cost-justified."
Utilities transmit volumes of data across their communications networks. This data includes teleprotection, a technology which minimizes the impact and duration of faults on a transmission line, distribution automation, alarms and video surveillance.
Additionally, utilities use multiple forms of communications technologies.
"Utilities prefer to buy licensed spectrum, which offers clearer data transmission over greater distances than unlicensed spectrum, the survey found."
When performing routine maintenance and restoring service after a severe storm, utility crews rely on land-mobile radio systems to communicate. Because of utilities' investments in back-up power, these systems are highly reliable and resilient and typically remain operational during prolonged power outages typically caused by storms.
Utilities also deploy fiber lines along their substations, although for some smaller utilities, fiber can be cost-prohibitive. In locations where fiber is unaffordable or impossible to deploy, usually due to geography, nearly all utilities turn to wireless technology, which relies on radiofrequency spectrum to function.
Perhaps the most popular, reliable and cost-effective wireless transmission is done via microwave. Microwave communications are wireless communications delivered in narrow beams from antennae devices pointed directly at each other (point-to-point).
Utilities use microwave communications for outage management, energy management, teleprotection and smart metering, among other functions.
Utilities prefer to buy licensed spectrum, which offers clearer data transmission over greater distances than unlicensed spectrum, the survey found. Licensed spectrum is more expensive, however.
"The overriding conclusion from this survey is that telecommunications are critical to the reliable and resilient delivery of electricity."
More than half of the responding utilities stated that 75% or more of their wireless telecommunications networks use licensed spectrum. Nearly one-fourth of the responding utilities said that licensed spectrum accounts for 95% or more of their wireless telecommunications networks. While relatively inexpensive, unlicensed spectrum is not as reliable as licensed spectrum.
Overall, fiber and microwave are the two most dominant communications media used by utilities. Both provide high reliability, although the survey found that over the next three to five years, utilities are expected to invest slightly more in fiber deployments.
"Importantly, utilities will continue to add capacity into their wireline and wireless network as demands increase," the survey found. "Private utility networks are here to stay for the long-term."
The overriding conclusion from this survey is that telecommunications are critical to the reliable and resilient delivery of electricity.
Utilities have engineered telecommunications networks that are large and complex. Those networks are both at the core of utilities' day-to-day operations and the transition to Utility 2.0. While these networks may not be as noticeable as the power lines criss-crossing the U.S., they are essential to the reliable and safe delivery of electricity.
Simply put, telecommunications and electricity are inexorably intertwined.