Bridging the future with hybrid wireless architecture
Modern electric utility grid must support distributed intelligence applications needed to make electrical systems self-healing
The modern electric utility grid must seamlessly deal with growing operating complexities such as unpredictable power flows from renewable energy and Distributed Energy Resources (DER). This is particularly important as the Canadian Renewable Energy Association (CanREA).
anticipates strong renewable energy growth in Canada in 2021 with 240 MW of large-scale solar and 745 MW of wind projects currently under construction. The modern electric utility grid must also support the many distributed intelligence applications needed to make electrical systems self-healing. Many electric utilities are undertaking grid modernization programs and shifting towards decentralized systems linked by high-speed communications. Critical to this modernization process is fast and reliable data transmission supporting real-time operational visibility and control.
Utilities are adopting ADMS
Furthermore, energy efficiency programs and distributed generation are changing utility business models. They are moving from selling electricity produced in fixed generation stations to distributing power from multiple sources. Supporting national environmental guidelines, utilities support reductions in harmful emissions and support infrastructure for smarter cities, electric vehicles, microgrids, and smart homes.
To cope with these changing demands, utilities are adopting powerful Advanced Distribution Management Systems (ADMS) to provide real-time observation and control. Fundamentally, to create resilient and reactive grids, these smart approaches rely on robust communications systems.
Communications: The foundation of grid modernization
Detailed grid modernization plans roadmap the necessary steps to transform electricity grids over the coming decades. Utilities have long since begun to digitalize components and systems as part of creating intelligent grids for the efficient distribution of electricity. These plans layer new capabilities onto existing infrastructure to create a flexible, advanced electricity distribution system. Communications systems are the foundational layer and are vital for any modernization plan. 
Modern grids rely on an increasing number of diverse applications, some which require low latency and high availability and others that are bandwidth intensive. Reliable delivery of information to operational control centers is fundamental for securing operational continuity. Intelligent grids need adaptable communications systems that can incorporate future emerging applications and support digitalization of distribution grids without needing to replace the large number of legacy devices already operating in the field.
Legacy technology – The past shaping the future
Edge control places additional requirements on communications systems, but utilities cannot afford to simply rip out and replace existing infrastructure. Instead, standards-based communication technology to integrate legacy systems into the roadmap must be part of the transformation. The adoption of new communication technology is inevitable, but it is also shaped by the past.
As utilities install new technologies, they adopt a range of communications solutions, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Utilities need higher bandwidths, lower latencies, and more reliability to support critical operating assets. As an example, many utilities have installed mission critical applications such as Fault Location Isolation and Service Recovery (FLISR), which requires very low latency and often operates in localized clusters under autonomous control.
Existing systems regularly use different communications technologies, blending utility-owned and public cellular/mobile systems with Wi-Fi, narrowband mesh, (PtP) point-to-point, PtMP (Point to Multi Point), and microwave, usually via fiber optic backhaul to the control center. Each of these systems has its own advantages, such as low latency, high bandwidth, superior cybersecurity algorithms, or better quality of service. While many performance factors are a question of network design, no single communication technology is ideal for all applications.
Support mission critical applications
New operational technologies are accelerating the digitalization of utility infrastructure. They provide many more options for grid operators, from generation to distribution, supporting observation and control at all levels. Wireless communication technologies facilitate these new approaches and are more practical and economical to install than wired solutions. They support mission critical applications such as Fault Detection, Isolation, and Recovery (FDIR) and FLISR, which are the key to creating reactive grids that can reduce outage frequency and duration, thereby minimizing the number of customers affected.
On the other hand, systems may operate on congested public frequencies or use unreliable third-party solutions. Integrating these technologies into a single system can prove challenging because many of these systems are siloed. This is where hybrid architectures provide a solution, addressing the unique operating challenges of disparate, purpose-built communication networks through a unified communications approach that ensures fast, secure, and reliable connectivity across a variety of operational needs.
Hybrid systems integrate various technologies in a single device. One example are devices that support a cellular/ mobile technology and a low latency broadband mesh at the Field Area Network (FAN) level, and a narrowband mesh for the Local Area Network (LAN). Utilities can manage diverse communications systems through a single interface, making control, inspection, and maintenance streamlined. A utility can select the optimal configuration for their existing communications system and add additional technologies, including potential support for future 5G systems and private LTE. Hybrid communication architectures create an adaptive system ideal for intelligent grids, helping utilities modernize their infrastructure and provide customer benefit.
Hybrid communication systems are not just restricted to electric utilities. They offer an ideal option for smart cities that incorporate transportation, gas and water utilities, traffic signals, intelligent street lighting, traffic control, and public safety. As part of transitioning to the future, hybrid communications solutions supporting the Internet of Things (IoT) and other applications will form the foundation. We’ll also see analytics at the edge to allow customers to make local, automated decisions quicker, optimizing the capacity of their infrastructure
In the coming years, wireless communications will become a part of a larger, more intelligent ecosystem that leverages communications networks to carry fundamental, critical data where it is needed.