Connecting distributed assets: is LoRa the solution?

What are the benefits of using this unlicensed spectrum communication technology for grid monitoring? Engerati asks MultiTech for its view.

Having eyes on the grid - both high and low voltage - is an increasing necessity as power generation, transmission and distribution become decentralised.

When integrating multiple sources of supply, including solar/wind as well as traditional coal and nuclear, utilities and municipal or private energy providers need real-time visibility of underlying assets.

They also need flexible controls to ensure that bi-directional and variable power flows do not destabilise the grid and simultaneously maintain maximum energy efficiency.

The telecommunications sector has already met and overcome the challenge of connecting a large volume of consumer devices to cellular and wifi networks.

The connecting of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices in the energy sector however, is much less mature, says Richard Stamvik, Ecosystem Business Development at MultiTech; a US-based company that designs, develops and manufactures wireless communications equipment for the IIoT.

Unlicensed spectrum - energy use cases

Stamvik explains there are use cases within the utilities and energy distribution sectors where LoRa, an unlicensed spectrum communication technology, is an ideal fit.

LoRa is a Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technology for wirelessly connecting low power sensors and actuators spread over a several-mile-wide area in a secure, bi-directional network.

The LoRa network architecture is a star-of-stars topology, wirelessly connecting individual end-devices, such as sensors, to one or more gateways.

The company’s MultiConnect series of gateways and embedded modules leverages the low-frequency, unlicensed Industrial, Scientific and Medical radio band, which avoids the use of licensed (and thus costly) cellular radio bands.

This is especially important in minimising the cost of connecting each individual asset – which may number in the thousands - transmitting very small amounts of data sporadically.

“Think of a utility that needs to remotely monitor assets such as meters as well as push back messages for demand response programmes. As an unlicensed spectrum technology, LoRa is cheaper to deploy with no fees due to the cellular operator,” says Stamvik.

You also get business model flexibility. After your LoRa investment - Stamvik points out that a healthy ecosystem offers cost competition - you have a choice including a fee or a no-fee model for connecting your devices.

Another use case for LoRa is for distributed energy resource management systems to enable thousands of endpoints in a wide area,” explains Moira Young, Director, Strategic Accounts IoT at MultiTech. “LoRa uniquely enables the monitoring of such varied resources to synergise the data.”

MultiConnect devices for LoRa technology can be deployed in a private or public network, connecting widely spaced endpoints in a star topology, allowing a single gateway to support thousands of endpoints.

LoRa uses spread spectrum, which remains below the noise floor, and operates in sub-GHz frequencies which can penetrate through concrete and deep into buildings, says Young.

The product line comes with a choice of backhaul options, including cellular and Ethernet.

Asset management and predictive maintenance

Another use case for low power wide area connectivity in the utility sector is asset maintenance.

The daily monitoring of remotely located assets such as pylons or generation, distribution or consumption assets is essential in predictive maintenance and can be enabled by LoRa as a communication infrastructure.

One advantage here is the ultra-low power consumption of the LoRa radio meaning the battery will likely degrade on its own before the device uses all its power.

The technology is equally suited to monitoring renewable energy sources such as solar panels, says Stamvik.

Connected street lights, which represent a significant load on the network, are also an ideal candidate to be monitored and controlled by low power wide range technology.  

LoRa network - considerations

One consideration is the need to provide network access for end devices, cautions Stamvik. “Energy utilities have to set up their own network, or buy network access from a network provider.”

In Europe, where LoRa is more established than in the US, Stamvik can imagine distribution system operators sharing the cost of developing LoRa networks in future.

That’s not to say that LoRa is the only communication technology suited to energy use cases, says Stamvik, who also helps deploy cellular LPWA solutions, such as LTE-Cat M1 and NB-IoT in the utilities sector.

Licensed and unlicensed spectrum technologies have their own unique properties that should be mapped to the use case.

LoRa solution - meet the experts

Learn more about how LoRa technology can help connect physical assets to business processes by meeting MultiTech’s experts at their exhibition stand at European Utility Week, 3-5 October, in Amsterdam.