This article is a summary of a very informative panel session that took place on May 25th at the Connectivity Week conference in Santa Clara, CA. It was one of the best sessions I attended at the conference. Note that the focus was on wireless- not wireline networks- to be used for Smart Grid Critical Communications.
Critical communications’ infrastructure that supports the likes of the military, emergency services and law enforcement is protected to serve the public good and is not subject to everyday market forces. Electricity is a strategic asset for all modern economies and adequate safeguards are needed to protect the grid in much the same way. One way of doing this is to allow utilities to share the dedicated spectrum and radio frequencies that support these essential services. The purpose of this session is to elucidate the rationale for utilities use of wireless networks to send and receive critical communications related to Smart Grid.
Moderator: Kat Shoa, The Directive Group
- Jon Sessions: Chief Technologist, SAIC
- David Witkowski: President, Wireless Communications Alliance
- George Flammer: Chief Scientist, Silver Spring Networks
- Howard Liu: Network Architect, Southern California Edison
Ms Shoa set the tone of the session by enumerating the key characteristics of critical communications infrastructure:
- Supports military, emergency response, and law enforcement
- Fundamental to public safety during emergencies
- Spans broad geographic areas
- QoS of utmost importance
- Public vs. private networks
- Security: physical security, data security
- Integration/deployment timelines
She then introduced the panelists. Due to technical problems, the order of presentations was changed from that listed in the program.
Howard Liu, Network Architect, Southern California Edison (SCE)
Howard’s presentation was most illuminating in learning what a cutting edge electric utility has done to build and operate its own network. He suggested that utilities have to build their own integrated communications network for critical applications, e.g. disaster recovery. They also have to develop a road map for executing their network strategy that depends to a large extent on the maturity of individual telecom technologies. A key issue is integrating different physical subnetworks.
SCE is one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, serving a population of nearly 14 million people in a 50,000 square-mile service area in Central/ Coastal/ Southern California. Their home grown telecommunication network spans 75,000 miles! The SCEnet was built approximately 15 years ago (mid 1990s) for $110 million dollars. It has resulted in over a 300% ROI in avoided costs and increased revenue generation. The SCEnet consists of several subnetworks:
- 3,100 route-miles of Fiber optic cable
- Microwave network: 3,792 path-miles
- A private satellite network to provide network connectivity to over 300 remote substations (36MHz channels; 170 satellite phones)
- 2,568 Hand-held Radios (A private Mobile Radio Network that is used for emergency communication)
- 28,275 Netcom Radios (remotely control devices in the electric system, and Load Management radio system for Energy Demand Response)
These subnetworks collectively form an integrated network that enables SCE to be a much more productive and responsive electric utility. Howard claimed that SCE’s fiber optic, microwave, and Netcom network have helped create one of the most automated and reliable electric grids in the nation. Automated portions of the electric system include:
- 56% of SCE’s 900 substations
- 41% of the 4,400 electric circuits
- 100% of commercial and industrial customers (with Smart metering).
- The SCE Network (see Figure) is supporting the real time monitoring of over 200,000 points in the electric grid every four seconds.
Whether to “lease or own” the network was a common theme at most Connectivity Week communications related sessions. SCE believed it had to build its own integrated critical communications infrastructure to support critical applications. Such a network had to provide low latency, broad coverage over the service area, very high reliability and availability at all times, but especially in the event of an emergency.
But going forward, SCE would like to use a hybrid network approach. One where SCE primarily relies on its own network for utility applications that have demanding requirements, like those listed above. An unknown question is: whether SCE can rely on telcos to support these critical applicationsor should it build its own network by refreshing and expanding SCEnet? If so, they’d like to lease a telco network to complement their own.
SCE still needs to evaluate the leased option for various Smart Grid applications. They will try to be open minded and explore new possiblities as both technologies and business models change over time, Howard believes the telcos understand “Smart Grid” is the next big area of opportunity, so they are gearing up to see how they can support a Smart Grid telecom roll-out. Some are creating new business units just focused on the Energy Sector.
Meanwhile, there may be some emerging 4G wireless technologies (TBD) which may be able to meet some utility requirements. A private 4G network with licensed spectrum is under consideration at SCE. They are trying to identify spectrum from 700MHz to 2.6GHz for that purpose. The maturity of the underlying technology will be a key factor on whether or not SCE deploys it.
In conclusion, Mr. Liu re-iterated several key points:
- SCEnet has been performing well for over 15 years
- SCE’s Unified Communication Architecture anticipates all enterprise communications needs
- SCE’s Integrated Critical Communications Infrastructure has a vision of a Layered Communications Architecture
- Utilities had to build their own Integrated Critical Communications Infrastructure for Critical Applications
- SCE will consider complementing that with a telco network going forward