Much of the attention on smart grids has been focused on such things as the deployment of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), issues surrounding eco-sustainability and the overall benefits of smart grids to utilities and customers alike. This has meant that the thing that makes the smart grid “smart,” its underlying communications infrastructure, tends to take a back seat. With the announcement from Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) of the addition to its 7705 Service Aggregation Router family of two new IP/MPLS routers, the 7705 SAR-H and 7705 SAR-W, built specifically to for the unique challenges of electric utilities as they move to make their networks “smart” end-to-end, all of that is about to change. Why so?
The purpose behind purpose-built
In point of fact, without dynamic communications capability end–to-end, the smart grid cannot be smart. For the full benefits of the smart grid to be realized, all elements in the electric utility power grid—from the main transmission facilities to the sub-transmission and distribution plant all the way out to the field network—need to be network-aware and controllable. What Alcatel-Lucent is introducing with the SAR-H and SAR-W is the ability for electric utilities to have the total awareness they need and the security and control required for them to provide reliable and secure power. Indeed, the recent ravages of Hurricane Sandy in the north eastern part of the U.S. highlight the importance of all of this, particularly as a way to improve mean time to restoration.
The new routers have been purpose-built to provide best-of-breed communications on a flattened and more easily managed network that leverages IP/MPLS (Internet Protocol/Multiprotocol Label Switching) solutions to provide utilities the awareness and control they need by driving enhanced communications capabilities deeper into their networks. This is at the heart of enabling the fulfillment of the smart grid promise.
These are not your father’s enterprise routers. Instead, they have been built from the ground up to be ruggedized to withstand not just the weather, but also the unique operating environments and hazards that can arise from placing communications equipment in close proximity to power facilities. They can go underground or even on poles, all the while providing the electricity grid smarter power management to create dramatic operational and cost efficiencies.
A little background is in order on two fronts. First, as a result of the smart grid many utility companies have rightfully been looking to upgrade to new IP/MPLS solutions to update their communications networks in overall. The reasons are the same driving IP/MPLS usage by enterprises —superior speeds, bandwidth, reliability, enhanced service capabilities, reduced costs, and easier and less expensive network management and control.
Until now, IP/MPLS has only been deployed in the transmission and sub-transmission layers of the power grid. As can be seen below, the new products are specifically designed to be deployed in the Distribution and Field Area Network (FAN) – the part of the network that distributes power to an energy supplier’s residential or business customers. As Lynn Hunt, Global VP, Utility Solutions, Alcatel-Lucent, said: “Alcatel-Lucent’s expanded Service Aggregation Router portfolio, together with our Service Routers and Network Management portfolio, allow utilities to deploy a converged IP/MPLS based smart grid communications network. In doing so, we can help utilities save time and costs and allow them to take advantage of new revenue opportunities, for example, in offering telecom services to customers over their network.”
In short, this extends the benefits of IP/MPLS, including service consistency and management, across a utility’s entire communications network, making it smart from end-to-end.
The graphic blow highlights where the new products fit.
Source (News - Alert): Alcatel-Lucent
What this translates into for utilities is that they can use the extension of their IP/MPLS network to achieve a single, reliable and secure network that removes the need for utilities to maintain multiple application-specific networks.
In addition, IP/MPLS provides support for:
- Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) monitoring and control systems, which are the heart and soul of utility operations
- Network distribution automation
- Advanced smart grid metering
- Substation automation, across the entire smart grid
As Alcatel-Lucent explains, “This greatly simplifies network management, reduces costs, and provides increased network security, ensuring outages are efficiently managed and dramatically reduced.”
The second point of note is that Alcatel-Lucent is not new to this market. As Mark Madden, Regional VP for Utilities Solutions in North America told TMCnet, “We have been working with electric utilities on their unique communications needs for 25-30 years. We understand what they require and we are giving them a communications bridge to the future so they can optimize the potential of smart grid and do so cost-effectively.”
This “bridge” to the future is an important component. Network transformations do not happen overnight, and the decades of investment in separate networks to perform specific functions that can now all be collapsed, secured and easily managed, need to be integrated and ultimately migrated to all IP. In fact, the 7705 SAR family as the graphic below shows is extremely versatile in its role as bridge.
There is even a firewall built into the devices for added protection from hackers out in the field.
Not on the graphic, but critically import is the SAR-W stands for wireless. With LTE (News - Alert) becoming an important part of the mix, not just for power companies, but also for government agencies, public safety organizations and transportation companies, is the ability to integrate fixed and mobile wireless. This is particularly attractive as things other than just meter reading go wireless, and residences and businesses deploy more and more M2M solutions that are wireless-enabled. Plus, looking to the future where electric utilities may decide to extend their customer intimacy even further by going into the communications business themselves—a distinct possibility given their expanded network reach and customer relationships—wireless support is key,
The bottom line here as Madden enumerated is that power companies have extremely special requirements, and this dictated building a portfolio of solutions that fit not just their communications needs for operation in hardened deployments in the harshest, most remote environments, but also because of their exposure to the public the ability to meet stringent cyber security regulations.
The vision of smart grid that Alcatel-Lucent and the electric utility industry see can be summed up as:
- Improving power delivery and quality: balancing supply and demand, managing power quality and automating switching and protection systems
- Increasing operational efficiency: automating asset monitoring and management, leveraging data analytics for decision support and connect the mobile workforce whenever and wherever need.
- Incorporating “green energy” solutions: monitoring and controlling renewable energy sources everywhere, maintaining grid stability as renewable energy sources are added and meeting environmental targets and regulatory requirements.
- Engaging customers in energy management: providing info or incentives for reduced or more intelligent energy usage, implementing direct load controls and improving customer service.
The ability to transform utility communications infrastructure by driving IP network awareness and control all the way to the end customer holds forth the ability to not only make the smart grid smarter, but also enable utilities to react faster, plan better, improve customer satisfaction and do so by actually enhancing security in the process.
Madden noted that the two new products are being pilot tested currently, with general availability slated for sometime around February of this coming year. Despite the end of stimulus funding in the U.S., which is ahead in smart grid deployments globally, interest in the upgrading and extension the supporting communications infrastructure for smart grid is high. This is why having a purpose-built solution is smart on a variety of fronts.
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Edited by Brooke Neuman