Geospatial professionals working in the utility sector often oversee that one unsuspected ally: the utility telecom specialist. As direct colleagues, telecom specialists can add value to asset management, maintenance tasks and the smart grid.
There is a great variety in utilities. For instance, they come in all sizes. Similarly, their telecommunications divisions wildly differ from each other. Operational Telecom can reside within power system operations, within the IT department or as a separate group company. It can even be outsourced. The percentage of employees working in telecoms can range from 1 to 5 per cent. Or, in rare cases, even more.
5G as differentiator, as business enabler
Current issues in the world of connectivity have to do with the best-by-date of proprietary solutions. Overtime, engineering legacy systems will be difficult. Especially with the huge degree of flexibility and saleability required for future smart grids. Veerle Peters, business development manager at OTN Systems, feels that operational telecom is a distinct market segment. “The position of telecom in industrial markets is entirely different than in enterprise IT or at service provider level or web scale”. In 5G, telecom acts as a true differentiator, in enterprise IT, it’s a business enabler. “Industrial markets, however, view telecom as a necessary evil”, Peters asserts. And whereas the product lifetime in the consumer market might be anywhere between 4 and 7 years, the longevity of solutions and support for legacy interfaces is enormous and can be felt up to thirty years.
Utility specific telecoms requirements
For any utility to function, its telecommunications requirements are impressive. First, utilities need a very high availability, with a minimum of 99.9 per cent. Second, in safety critical applications (tele-protection), a low latency (< 6 milliseconds round trip delay) is necessary. Third, there’s cyber security to worry about. A utility creates an increasing attack surface by adding connectivity to its existing networks. It increases exposure to unwanted attempts to disable critical infrastructure. Fourth, there’s a need for ubiquitous coverage. A significant part of utility infrastructure resides in rural areas with no connectivity. This especially rings true in the increasing amount of small and medium scale solar and wind energy installations. Fifth: while the through-put is generally low when compared with consumer-based applications, additional functionality and encryption is increasing this by one or two orders of magnitude. Last not least, for critical monitoring and control (SCADA), traffic prioritization is needed.
European Utilities Technology Council
On a strategic level, there’s an interesting umbrella organization lobbying for this sector. The Europe Utilities Technology Council (EUTC) represents the specific technical and regulatory interests of electric, gas and water utilities. Julian Stafford, Technical Director of the EUTC: “All of them are considered ‘critical national infrastructure’ in any country”. The Council is membership-driven, with major utility participation from large and small utility operators including those in Spain, France, Holland, Germany, Portugal, Ireland and the UK. It engages globally with stakeholders (vendors, operators) to ensure alignment of new products, standards and spectrum allocation with the needs of the utility sector. It wants to be proactively responding to consultations from the European Commission and all European Union energy and telecommunications regulators regarding the digitalization of the energy sector. The EUTC is part of the larger international Utilities Technology Council (UTC), which has a presence in the USA, South America and Africa.
Raising Telecoms department’s profile
“Our society takes electricity for granted, utility takes telecommunications for granted”, says Alberto Sendin, telecommunications project manager at Iberdrola. A typical telecom division might feel trapped in their own mission. In short: a utility just expects its telecom department to make sure that ‘everything works’. You might want to call it the commodity effect. “Telecommunications lay hidden behind applications. They are everywhere. Both in utility business as in telecommunications for utilities”. Another thing standing in the way of wider recognition: telecommunication is not clearly distinguished from the wider ICT context. Numerous layers are co-interacting. It’s fuzzy when it comes to protocols dictating data transmissions (like TCP and UDP), and decisions concerning the physical path the data will take. Sendin adds: “Even we, practitioners, cannot draw the line”. There is a proper start when it comes to becoming more visible. “Let us adopt a language our colleagues will understand”, Sendin asserts.
Integrated in the grid
Telecoms can have nice integrations within the grid. Not only of a substation, secondary substation or a low-voltage grid, but also as part of a smart city. In any case, a good knowledge and understanding of it is needed. Whether you are talking about specific modes like ADSL or PLC, or specific hardware like BPL and PRIME. The next issue for Telecom and IT would be how to drive all this. Open Protocol, IEEE standards or the ITU-T might sound only vaguely familiar to geospatial professionals working in utilities. In effect, the existing knowledge of any GIS specialist on spatial standards can be incremental to maintaining and further developing the telecom grid. Both GIS and Telco specialist share a keen eye on what may be coming next. The geospatial and telecom division might be able to work together in planning and design.
Improved, more sophisticated connectivity
As smart grids become more pervasive and the reliance on distributed renewables increases, the requirement for improved and more sophisticated connectivity are only to become more challenging. But, unlike 20th century networks, development of local, proprietary solutions will not bring value to the scale and complexity of the solutions. However, there is no ‘one size fits all’ and technology is unlikely to be available off-the-shelf in an ideal configuration. Although, through involvement with the relevant standards bodies and industry forums, utilities can still influence the capabilities which will exist which will exist in future devices.
One of the drivers for more advanced telecommunication is carbon reduction. Tim Godfrey Technical Executive at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) explains: “Carbon reduction goals require large-scale adoption of distributed energy sources and storage. One should build them on a modernized grid with advanced telecommunications. An integrated grid, including customer local energy platforms, combines two rapidly evolving large system infrastructures: electric grids and telecom networks.” Physical security requirements include surveillance video and access control. Environmental monitoring makes use of sensors. The same goes for asset monitoring be it transformers, transmission or distribution parts. Telecom modernization follows. Geospatial data specialists might be of use for its planning, registration and visualization.
Benefits of 5G
The benefits of 5G networks appear where 4G is no longer sufficient in terms of connected devices. Applications include machine remote control, video surveillance/ analytics, field connectivity, cloud robotics and process. However, the leap forward in speed and performance requires new technology building blocks. Dominique Verhulst, global energy practice leader at Nokia explains: “5G’s main benefits are cost savings achieved by wireless connections and network virtualization. Above that, reliability increases, as does response time. In short, there’s added efficiency and redundancy.” Nokia explicitly builds on lessons learnt from 3G and 4G use case applications. Verhulst: “We want to see how 5G can improve on these.” Tim Godfrey outlines the current position: “5G pushes the limits in three directions: enhanced Mobile Broadband, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication and massive Machine Type Communications. In these use cases ONLY 5G can serve. But to be very honest: 4G LTE already covers most utility requirements.”
The author captured all quotes during one-on-one conversations and keynote presentations at the Amsterdam-based Utility Telecoms conference, held from February 26th to 28th, 2020. This conference specifically aimed at telco specialists working in the utility sector. Due to the coronavirus, Smart Grid Forums postponed their live events to September, 2020. The upcoming Smart Grid Forum Web Conference Series will showcase the latest utility implementations in the areas of Digital Substations, SCADA Systems, Utility Telecoms, Cybersecurity, Big Data, and more. These web conferences will be 90 minutes in duration and take place every two weeks from April through to September. Just like the live events, they will be content rich, implementation focused, and utility driven.