Taming the Big 4: Four ICT Challenges Facing Power Distributors

In the last part of the ‘Taming the Big Four’ blog series, ECI’s Marco Berger takes an intelligent look at the smart grid.
Published: Thu 07 Jun 2018
A blog entry by Marco Berger

Contributed by:

Marco Berger
Head of Utilities and Critical Infrastructures Vertical Solutions

Marco Berger's Blog

Challenge #4: Smart Grid is here. You’d be wise to take heed.

So far in this series, we’ve looked at the impact of the Winter Package regulations, revealed a few home truths about cyber security, and explored how to upgrade your legacy infrastructure.

For the series finale, I want to talk about the future: Smart Grid. Before we get into the detail of smart grids, it’s worth taking a step back to look at the bigger picture. What do we see? We see the traditional electric grid architecture going through tumultuous change. Namely, from a legacy network to a highly distributed one – what some people like to call the 'energy cloud'.

Today, there’s no one type of power plant. We have the VPP (the virtual power plant) and the micro-grid made up of companies, enterprises or organisations creating their own electricity. Plus, we have more distributed and mainly renewable energy sources available, such as wind and solar panels on homes, businesses and industrial districts, or even solar energy power plants. And to add to this increasingly complex picture, we have energy storage. Recently proven both possible and financially viable.

Unsurprisingly, this brave new world requires a new business model. One that’s based on a smarter approach – metaphorically and literally. One that allows utility companies (by necessity or through regulation) to introduce smart meters, smart monitoring, and smart control systems. Ultimately, to give the regulators and consumers visibility and control over what is now a multi-directional flow of energy into the grid, to align with environmental regulations, along with the costs associated with energy consumption.

We’re all utility companies now (potentially)

Take a residential customer with solar panels on their roof. Yes, they may use electricity from the grid, but they may also feed the grid for some of the day. So the interface between the customer and utility company has to be smart enough to read energy data in real-time, then communicate with the electrical grid’s operational centre so it can not only adjust and regulate the energy supply in the network, but also create an accurate bill at the end of the month detailing energy consumed minus the energy generated.

Now imagine the same scenario but with industry and business, with micro-grids, enterprises and any other new customers we’re adding to, or taking out of, the system. And what about the explosion of electric vehicles (EVs) predicted in the near future? The EV network will need to be widely distributed with numerous re-charging points – especially in rural areas. But to recharge quickly and efficiently, EVs need a surge of electricity for a short period of time. All this complexity and additional demand will have a huge impact on the grid. And to manage it all, we’ll need more intelligence.

Connecting the dots

And the secret to making all this work? Connectivity, of course. But secure and smart connectivity requires a reliable, flexible and scalable transport connectivity system for this next-generation grid. How else will your IT systems communicate with your customer’s meters as well as your OT systems? We’ve talked before about smart grid security, and the need for power utilities to distributed cyber security systems at every single point of access in the network.

In fact, a smart connectivity comms layer – with advanced traffic engineering tools, complete end-to-end management and a very secure cyber security package – is essential. Excuse the plug, but not only do ECI specialise in the ‘migration’ from legacy transport technologies to Packet, we also pioneered embedded cyber security in our smart transport solutions for critical infrastructure.

Far-reaching intelligence

A challenge power distributors face is that while network intelligence is available for the medium to high voltage electrical grid, it hasn’t yet extended to the Field Area Network (FAN). In the next 5-10 years, we’ll see network intelligence extend to very remote sites (such as hydro, wind and solar farms) providing connectivity for AMIs (advanced metering instruments) and smart grid elements. Think circuit breakers, smart transformers, sensors, probes and the rest of the devices participating in industrial IoT.

This is all part of the move towards ‘smart cities’. The smart grid is one very small but very important part of the whole smart city concept. That’s because, as the electricity grid in these large urban areas is mission critical, it has to be super-connected, super-reliable, super-autonomous and super-available. But any ICT layer solution also has to offer a very flexible and customisable cyber security package. One that you can easily connect to different sites or locations across a city.

The revolution is coming...

By revolution I mean the Internet of Things (IoT), which, with its promise of everything connected and ‘enabled’, is changing the perception, architecture and deployment of comms in the grid. That’s why we’re providing more broadband services, more switching capacity, and more miniaturisation – along with our cyber security packages and solutions – to provide holistic multi-vendor end-to-end management that offers true visibility of assets across the network.

Five questions: five answers

  1. When will this happen? Sooner than you think. So you need to start planning your investment and getting a better understanding of what ‘smart’ looks like, and what practical steps you’ll need to take to make it happen. One of the major drivers of change in the next decade will be EVs, which I think will accelerate the rate of changes in the grid ten-fold. And of course regulation, which is driving investment in renewables, distributed energy sources, and smart grid technologies, particularly in Europe. The EU wants a more transparent energy market so consumers can make more knowledgeable choices and become part of the energy cloud if they so wish. And let’s not forget the environmental issues that are at the heart of the 2020 Horizon plan. For all this to happen takes smart grid, which takes a smart meters, which requires new OT and IT comms layers.
  2. What about the migration process? With any mission-critical infrastructure, it has to be meticulously planned, so it won’t affect your existing service. This means deploying new architecture in parallel with the old one, and only switching once reliability and availability are assured. In our experience, it’s not something to hurry and takes 3-5 years.
  3. How can I possibly manage all of this? The simple answer is with as much automation as possible – which is another challenge, because there will be so many ‘things’ to connect. For example, the day-to-day management and maintenance of routers, transmission switches, radios, fibre quality, voice systems, cyber security appliances and services. And on top of that lot, we have the mission-critical services that combine software and hardware – SCADA systems, teleprotection, transformers, turbines, and generators. On their own, they're a lot to think about, but all of them combined and correlated?
  4. Who’s behind the market-wide platform? Key market players like Siemens, GE, and Schneider Electric are investing heavily in Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) to consolidate everything into a single platform. One that can be constantly updated and upgraded with new services and appliances. ECI is an intrinsic part of this PaaS system. We connect all those different network elements – generators, turbines, substations, circuit breakers, smart meters, CCTV cameras, biometric readers, even the electronic gates – to this platform, via our comms layers.
  5. Which countries are leading the way? Interestingly, countries like Costa Rica, Brazil and Colombia are far more advanced in using renewable sources of energy to feed their electrical grid. Costa Rica is capable of feeding its grid from 100% renewables, while Brazil produces 35% of its energy in the same way, and it will soon be 40%. But with the Horizon 2020 plan, Europe won’t be far behind. To be blunt, the message for utility companies is modernise or die. Hello multi-directional grid, hello opportunity This is an opportunity for forward-thinking utilities companies, as they’ll be able to grow by becoming more competitive and giving consumers more targeted and more personalised offerings. In turn, they’ll be able to learn more about their consumers, better understand their usage patterns, and plan their own energy generation more effectively. The new landscape will further open up the energy market and, who knows, create more business opportunities for utility companies – who already have a foothold in consumers’ homes – to diversify their own service offerings. And if everything works as predicted, consumption will increase manyfold – along, you’d hope, with the return on investment.

This member voice is the last of a four part series - if you found this blog enlightening, you may also enjoy the previous instalments, Challenge #1: “Winter (Package) is coming”, Challenge #2: Security: How Secure Does Secure Have to Be? and Challenge #3: Migration to Packet.