Why Smarter Grids Demand Smarter Communications Networks

Historically, utility networks and communications networks have had little in common. These two types of networks have intersected, of course – utilities have relied on communications networks for decades to support a variety of critical capabilities, which have generally run on equipment leased from telecommunications carriers. Similarly, these carriers relied on power grids to power to their communications networks. However, these intersections were few, and the two types of networks were built, managed and operated in very different ways.

The world has changed since most grids were built. Today utilities face challenges that aging infrastructure cannot support. In fact, the carrier networks that utilities have relied on for remote monitoring, control and grid automation will soon be shut down in favor of IP-based networks.

Meanwhile, the need to manage renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, have introduced additional demands. Notably, this renewable component typically involves small-scale, distributed energy resources that tend to be connected to the least automated part of the grid – the medium-voltage and especially the low-voltage parts of the distribution network. Utilities need to modernize their grids to make them smarter. Part of this transformation is the transition to a more modern and reliable communications network.

This transition is similar to the shift that is taking place in communications networks. IP and Multiprotocol Label Switching (IP/MPLS) technology was developed to serve as the foundation for next-gen communications networks. Carriers have used IP/MPLS networks to consolidate a variety of services and applications – voice, data, video – onto a single, converged infrastructure, making it possible to deliver a variety of services to customers. Not surprisingly, IP/MPLS has emerged as the chosen path for T&D utilities globally to connect substations, operation centers, data centers and remote grid devices. This is due to its deterministic performance, efficient support of packet-based traffic and ability to support legacy traffic. IP/MPLS enables utilities to support multiple application-specific operational networks on a single network while optimizing the performance of the growing number of real time IP-based smart grid applications.

All of the capabilities carriers and utilities must support – from movie streaming to linking sensors for substation automation – can be served using a dynamic, secure, and mission-critical communications network.

Lead image: Smart Grid Illustration. Credit: Shutterstock.

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