No stranded assets: 'Future proofing' your metering and grid communications

Technology choices can't be made in a vacuum if opportunities are to be fully harnessed, says Tim Wolf, Itron.
Published: Mon 14 Nov 2016

Network architecture and communications technology has advanced quickly over the past 3-5 years, creating new opportunities and considerations. The rapid proliferation of distributed generation is disrupting the traditional utility business model and bringing in new market entrants. Against this backdrop, technology choices can no longer be made in a vacuum, but rather must be made with a “head’s up” view of new use cases, competitive threats, emerging technologies, and new business opportunities. The first and most fundamental question to ask is: What do you want to do with your network? If all you ever want to do with the network is smart metering – automating the collection of consumption data – your choice becomes fairly easy. However utilities are increasingly asking a different question about their network investments: “What else can I do with it?”

Network architecture

No smart CIO would invest in an IT network that would support only one application, such as email, and another separate network for spreadsheets, and yet another for web browsing. Today more and more utilities are investing in a multi-application network where smart metering is the first “app,” because the network can also do grid sensing, distribution automation, customer engagement, smart EV charging and solar monitoring. The idea is pretty simple: spread the cost of the network infrastructure over a continuously expanding number of applications to create a broader value stream and stronger return on investment. This approach also hedges against technical and financial risk by ensuring that the network can continually evolve to support new applications and changing business needs. What makes this approach particularly attractive to utility CIOs and other senior management is that it is now possible for a smart metering/smart grid network to function as an extension of the enterprise IT network into the field, from the substation through the distribution system and all the way to the customer premise. Grid devices can ‘plug and play’ on the network just as a printer or an IP-phone would be added to an enterprise IT network. That’s a huge change from siloed, proprietary smart metering networks that struggle to accommodate new devices and applications. IP standards, specifically IPv6, the same protocol that powers the Internet, are what make this approach to multi-application networks possible. IP does this by completely abstracting the network architecture from the applications and devices that run on it, thereby reducing dependence on a single AMI vendor for future integration of new devices and applications. IP also provides the foundation to functional attributes that enable the field area network to function just like an enterprise IT network. These include: An Advanced network management capability (NMS) that provides a single view into all devices and nodes to monitor network status and performance. A standardized, robust and proven security model so that all devices and applications running on the network are well protected in the same way. Quality of service (QOS), meaning that network traffic and data can be dynamically prioritized so that more critical applications (outage detection) take precedence over less critical applications (meter reading for billing). Specifying full IP architecture for your smart metering network is the single most effective step you can take to “future proof” the solution and ensure the long-term return on the network investment.


Revolution in communications


Deploying and operating a smart metering network presents many challenges. First among them is selecting a communications technology that delivers the most reliable and cost-effective connectivity to the greatest number of meters and grid devices. Selecting the best fit communications technology for 90% or 95% of the meters is fairly easy; covering the last 5 or 10 % is where high costs and difficulties arise. But the game is changing. Robust data processing power combined with advancements in software-definedcommunications have paved the way to solve critical connectivity and communication performance challenges. For instance, it is now possible to utilize a communications module that incorporates RF, PLC and Wi-Fi communications all on the same chip set. This enables dynamic and continuous selection of the optimal communications path and the most appropriate frequency modulation based on network operating conditions, data attributes and application requirements. This dynamic communications capability also shatters the traditional compromise that comes with single communications networks: that network speed and performance must come at the expense of connectivity. Now we can have the highest possible speed without compromising connectivity.


It takes an ecosystem

The smart grid is bigger than any one company, or any one technology. It’s a collection of technologies, interacting and sharing information. That’s why open standards, supporting a growing and innovative development ecosystem, are key to ensuring that grid technology is able to evolve with the changing landscape and business needs. Convergence of information technology and operational technology in the global utility industry will continue and accelerate; and technology advancement will continue to outpace the asset lifecycle paradigm utilities have so long operated within. The convergence of smart grid with the emerging smart cities and Internet of Things markets are accelerating this trend. While the constancy of change renders the idea of “future proof” elusive in the absolute sense, there is no doubt that the combination of open standards, the affordability of greater computing power at the edge, advancements in softwaredefined communications, and the growing ecosystem of grid technology is changing the calculus for communication network investment. It’s doing so by reducing cost of ownership, broadening the business case and greatly reducing the risk of a stranded investment. That’s good news for everyone.

This article was originally published in Metering International