[Black & Veatch Q&A] The Role of Communications for Modernizing the Grid

[Black & Veatch Q&A] The Role of Communications for Modernizing the Grid

By Jon Arnold, ETS16 Community Advocate

In support of our recent Energy Thought Summit, I’ve been doing a series of interviews with thought leaders from our community, and given the ongoing interest from readers we are extending things post-summit with more interviews.

Being an analyst in the communications sector, I closely follow how the energy industry has been adopting today’s technologies. There are long-standing barriers to change, but utilities are moving forward, and Black & Veatch is at the forefront to help make this happen. To get a hands-on perspective, I interviewed Ed Sutton, a Principal Consultant in Black & Veatch’s Telecommunications business. He is well-versed in helping utilities address these challenges, and our discussion went as follows.

With the broad focus of our interview being smart utilities, let’s start with what you see being the key drivers behind grid modernization and optimization, along with the areas you’re seeing utilities making the most progress.

There is a compilation of drivers at work here and can best be surmised as transformative change and can be captured as follows:

Policy and agency

  • The regulatory environment, both nationally and locally, is supporting a certain quality of life expectancy of environmental sustainability and energy reliability and resiliency. Government policy, along with federal and state incentives, is beginning to reflect this philosophy. We’re also seeing change in key influencers. Everything from cleantech incubators to smart cities to roof-top solar providers are affecting how these tenets are coming to life.

Technology advancement

  • The ever-evolving Internet of Things (IoT)—driven by the integration of networked sensors, automation and machine-to-machine communication and the resulting data analysis—is causing utilities to take a greater look into their IT and OT operations, and how they can be leveraged and improved to create more reliable and resilient utility systems. Couple this with falling costs of technology components, chipset advancements, and open-source software, we see the barrier to entry being greatly reduced and the willingness to play on the rise.
  • The role of the customer is becoming an increasing factor of the energy equation. The expectation, if not necessity, is for highly reliable and resilient service that is cost effective. At the same time the consumer as a producer adds another layer of system instability that requires a modern optimized approach. This social context that paints this evolving utility-customer relationship is inherently modern and fundamentally transformative.
  • Emerging technologies bring new third parties to the table and require new methods to enable secure and reliable integration. Service-oriented architectures enable new energy players to enter the field of play and with them bring forward-looking opportunities and revenue streams to utilities.

To support that modern, optimized grid, there needs to be an underlying communications infrastructure. Why is it important utilities have a reliable and resilient communications infrastructure in place?

It’s well-accepted that the communications infrastructure is foundational to a modernized grid. What utilities need to be thoughtful of is the network design. The electric grid is a system of systems, and the communications network needs to be an integrated, unified system to support it. The system as a whole “greater than the sum of its parts” is by definition predicated on the fact that there are relationships between parts. It’s these relationships, or communications, that create value from the system.

To avoid the inefficiencies that come from having overlapping or isolated systems, utilities need to make sure they take a “systems view” in their approach to design, ensuring everything is connected with interoperable, two-way communications. As the grid becomes more dependent upon technology, it will be even more important to ensure this technology is supported by reliable and secure communications.

What key trends are you seeing in the upgrading of that communications infrastructure, especially in terms of the technologies being used?

Communications infrastructure and the logic it enables is moving to the edge, meaning utilities will need to expand and extend their telecommunications networks throughout the distribution system and the end user layers to take advantage of opportunities like distributed energy resource (DER) integration and data analytics. Lots of wireless options are being explored for connecting the edge, licensed, unlicensed, ad-hoc mesh, and private LTE.

Once modernization challenges have been addressed, what do you see as the key benefits for utilities?

Beyond improving operational efficiencies and reliability, transitioning to a modernized grid communications system will open up new opportunities for transformative business models and revenue streams. A modernized system addresses the present needs, but will also open up additional capabilities. A good analogy might be the move from dial-up internet to broadband. Broadband not only provides speed and other operational efficiencies, but enabled advancements that weren’t even envisioned in the dial-up world.

In the utility, PEV charging is a bright example where the utility can not only provide the physical power system infrastructure, but also provide the secure and reliable network connectivity for firmware updates and bug fixes that could have future potential for autonomous vehicles.

As communications infrastructures become modernized, I’d like to look specifically at an emerging trend in smart grid: transactive energy. Could you please briefly define this, and then explain the role communications can play in helping transactive energy make the grid more resilient and secure?

The GridWise Architecture Council has done a lot of really great work in defining and developing the foundational concept. I would define it as the marrying of grid stability and reliability with economic value. Essentially saying that energy is generated and controlled on the grid and therefore should have an economic transaction associated with how that energy is made or used. As the grid becomes more dynamic, the industry is starting to look at how blockchain technology can manage every transaction across the distribution grid.

Our traditional one-way grid never accounted for the influx of DER and the interaction with new ancillary third parties and service providers, especially on the edge. This transactive energy concept is well established at the transmission system level. However, it’s at the edge in distribution that transactive energy concepts are just coming to life.

The resilience and security transactive energy brings is the opportunity to bring the free market to innovate, interact, and be compensated for the value they bring. This ultimately drives the system to higher levels of viability. But it’s on top of the transactive platform that the real technology, such as blockchain, can evolve to provide greater security and resiliency.

Finally, as utilities transform their grid operations, they are also experiencing the convergence of IT and OT. As they go through this transition, what considerations should they be aware of? 

Ask yourself, what is the converged state? What does the world look like after everyone/thing comes together, is converged? I think we need to move our focus from what is happening, “IT/OT converging” and think more about what does this converged world need to be. What happens when we get there? What are the best attributes of the informational and operational worlds and how can they be re-imagined to deliver the modernized, highly effective, and reliable grid of the future?

To me this convergence reconciles itself on a mission-critical plane where Mission Critical Technologies (MCT) provide the best of their foundational roots in a systemic manner to fully realize the value and benefits of the modern grid.

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