A smarter power network

Wireless communications are allowing greater energy network visibility through fast and efficient smart grids, reports Kate O'Flaherty

A smarter power network

Wireless communications are enabling the creation of smart grids in the UK, with the potential to cut costs and drive efficiency in the energy industry as well as in the home.

According to the widely accepted definition, a smart grid is an electricity power system that can intelligently integrate the actions of all users connected to it – generators, consumers and those that do both, in order to efficiently deliver sustainable economic and secure electricity supplies. 

Potentially, a smart grid improves the reliability, security and efficiency of the electric system for small to large-scale generation, transmission, distribution and storage. Smart grids extend system balancing into distribution and the home, providing consumers with greater information and choice of supply. 

As a key component of the smart grid, the overall architecture of wireless networks allows for the deployment of an out-of-band monitoring and control network, at a lower cost. According to Robert McNamara, executive director at SmartGrid GB, it will save £19bn between 2012 to 2050 if the UK develops a smart grid to meet energy needs. 

‘Wireless networks can be deployed rapidly, at a much lower cost than wireline networks,’ Chris Daniels, general manager, Americas, Alvarion, says. ‘Many applications are supported over the wireless communication network, including the reporting of power consumption at the user level, which is the AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) portion of the network.’

In Britain, issues around smart grids tend to focus on the local distribution networks, with transmission networks – run by National Grid, SSE and Scottish Power – already considered relatively smart. ‘We don’t have a smart distribution grid at the moment. The first thing is to roll out smart metering,’ says McNamara.

The main UK energy issues are security of supply, efficiency and sustainability and cost of energy – also referred to as the ‘energy trilemma’, according to McNamara. ‘It is against this backdrop that the government is investing in an variety of initiatives such as offshore wind and CCS (carbon cature and storage), and energy network modernisation – aka smart grids,’ he says.

‘It’s now about automating,’ Khalid Mahmood, solutions architect at Hughes Europe, says. ‘Smart grids have had elements like automation from the early days. Systems like SCADA control systems have been focused in critical national infrastructure. It has always been about core control.’

Globally, the UK is thought to be a leader in the area, along with the US, Korea and Japan, but a smart grid has not been deployed elsewhere at scale yet, says McNamara, adding: ‘There are many pilot projects in the world including Jeju Island in Korea and numerous large projects in the US, but not a holistic smart grid at scale.’

Both private and public wireless networks are used for smart grids and although private are preferable, they can initially be more expensive to deploy.  ‘Although you primarily see public networks used for AMI applications, there are some smart grid applications that also use public networks,’ says Daniels, adding: ‘Private networks provide greater security, reliability, control, prioritisation of traffic and coverage than public networks. The CAPEX to deploy a private network is higher than using a public infrastructure, but annual operating costs are lower, as is the TCO.’

Satellite technology is often used to plug holes in coverage. Manufacturer and service provider Hughes uses a combination of technologies to fill these gaps. Mahmood says: ‘Satellite allows ubiquitous coverage. A lot of our initiatives are about smart meter back up. It may be to plug coverage – we have already been involved in the US and India. In the UK that’s where our focus is; satellite is for filling in the gaps.’

Smart grids give distribution network operators improved visibility, allowing them to fix faults and see what is going on in their network. According to McNamara, a smart energy network allows distribution network operators to deal with difficult peaks in demand by better understanding how and when energy is being used, deploy low carbon technologies such as energy storage technologies and micro generation and deal more effectively with the rollout of
electric vehicles.

Daniels agrees, adding: ‘Smart grids give control to the utility, allowing them to identify faults and address them immediately.They allow for the control of power production during peak and off-peak times, lower the cost of power generation, minimise outages and recovery time and allow for advanced applications like AMI and intelligent Home Area Network devices.’

As the next step of smart meters in UK homes (see box) starts to become reality, security of the network is integral, and monitoring tools are already available. Mahmood says: ‘Security is key as there could be a breach. We have a holistic approach to deploying the network equipment which assists us from a network management perspective in terms of control and network load.’

Meanwhile, energy regulator Ofgem has a group whose job it is to ensure end-to-end security. ‘The infrastructure was built from the very beginning with this in mind,’ says McNamara. ‘There were issues around data and privacy in Holland when it was rolled out so the DECC were very careful.’

‘You have all this technology, so it must be secure,’ McNamara says. ‘Monitoring enables information around faults in the network and these are raised immediately, as is anything more sinister. The whole process has always had a critical national infrastructure.’

Smart grids are only at their inception in the UK, but before long wireless communications could allow smarter networksand as a result, dramatic gains in efficiency. 

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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