Philip Mason talks to the Joint Radio Company’s Adrian Grilli about the challenges facing the electricity generation industry, and its growing reliance on comms tech

When you mention the words ‘mission critical’ – at least to those on the periphery of the sector – the first thing that the majority of people think about will most likely be the emergency services.

This is, of course, completely intuitive, given just how public-facing organisations such as the police and the fire and rescue service are, both in terms their presence on the street and in the nightly news.

At the same time, however, there are also numerous other industries which require their communications to be if anything even more responsive than that used by those involved in public safety. These include aviation, as well as utilities – that is, the provision of water, gas, electricity, and so on – the latter of which employs dedicated SCADA technology in order to regulate and monitor its systems.

As interesting as the provision of energy in and of itself is from a communications point of view, the sector is likely to become yet more compelling going forward, given ongoing, massive changes which are taking place across the board.

These include the evolving nature of the grid itself, with the former ‘centralised’ generation model being gradually replaced by numerous, varied, sources of renewable energy sat increasingly at the edge. The other, possibly even more profound, change meanwhile is the sheer volume of additional power generation capacity that nation states are likely to require should innovations such as electric cars catch on as predicted. Both of these, alongside other innovations such as smart metering, will likely lead to a wholesale rethink when it comes to comms, for instance as the industry weighs up LTE in relation to SCADA.

Adrian Grilli is chief technology officer for the Joint Radio Company (JRC), a telecommunications consultancy service working on behalf of the UK utilities sector.

Discussing the changing state of the industry, he says: “Traditionally we’d have a relatively small number of large plants – generating around two gigawatts each, such as the nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk – delivering to the consumer via transmission and distribution networks. The model was centralised, with the power being generated near to where it was consumed, for instance along the Thames.

“That situation is changing now, with those stations, which primarily ran on coal, being increasingly replaced by smaller power plants mainly fuelled by gas, or renewables such as wind and solar power situated in rural areas. That being the case, while as a society we no longer like our power generation taking place near high-population areas, the electricity still has to be conveyed to that population.”

He continues: “Another issue with things like wind farms is the intermittent nature of what’s being generated by them. Again, traditional connection agreements worked on the basis that you would be able to generate at maximum power, all the time. Wind turbines and solar power don’t do that – and would overload the system if they did – so we now need to keep track of the power which is being generated.

“By dynamically monitoring the power lines as well as having control over the output, we can accept more renewables onto the network without having to reconductor [replace the cable] all these lines. The other alternative is simply to double the size of the network, which would obviously take years and cost millions of pounds.”

Solutions which are being used to help incorporate the renewables discussed above include real-time ‘grid optimisation’ software, as well as integrated distribution planning systems. Other centralised monitoring takes place via sensor-enabled processes such as ‘teleprotection’, through which breakers can be automatically tripped in a fraction of a second if a fault is discovered.

In terms of the use of voice and data by those on the ground, meanwhile, companies invariably employ a mixture of LTE-enabled smart devices, alongside traditional UHF point-to-multipoint systems. According to Grilli, however, the majority of UK energy producers are still content to use MPT-1327, the analogue-based private radio protocol for voice developed over 20 years ago. The rationale for this is that the technology is mature, and has been proven to work.

Going into greater detail about M2M communications, he says: “The UK industry generally uses VHF or UHF in the 400MHz band. All we’re essentially doing is looking at electrical voltages and currents on the network and opening and closing switches, something which requires a very small data rate, albeit with huge levels of reliability and security.

“We also need our radio technology to be power-independent, which is one reason – alongside issues with coverage – we tend to construct our own systems rather than using mobile networks. Avoiding interference is also paramount, which is why we like licensed spectrum.”

Keeping on the subject of broadband, Grilli says JRC is currently involved in a project with a utilities provider looking to potentially roll out a private LTE network in relation to its existing UHF infrastructure. The rationale for this, he suggests, is the inevitable increase in data required as the number of automated substations operating on the network inevitably increases alongside the developments outlined above.

Needless to say, this increase in the need for data will also need to be matched – at least according to JRC – by an attendant requirement for increased spectrum access. This is something which the organisation is currently discussing with the British authorities, with steady, if slow, progress being made.

“Our policy-makers haven’t looked at the total picture,” he says. “We can create more capacity through intelligence, but that requires telecoms, which in turn requires spectrum. We’re interested in around three per cent of [the amount that’s] being used by mobile operators, in bands which MNOs have no interest in – VHF and 400MHz UHF.

“Governments tend to have a fixation on the mobile broadband community, with any spectrum that becomes available automatically being given to them because of the benefit that would bring to our society. Actually, you can’t look at videos of kittens on the internet without a way to charge your smartphone or power your router...”

Electric autogeddon
It’s clear that there are a variety of challenges facing the electricity generation sector, ranging from its evolving network to the apparent complacency of policy-makers who – as tends to be the case with mission-critical industries – seem quite content to maintain the status quo, at least until something goes horribly wrong. Arguably the biggest question mark facing the sector, however, is just how much power is likely to be required heading into the future, thanks in particular to ongoing developments within the automotive industry.

“The big fear for us is actually electric cars,” says Grilli. “If you look at the government predictions, ownership is going to grow exponentially over the coming years, and people will obviously want fast chargers. There are two key issues for us – the amount of energy that will be required overall, but also predicting where that energy will be required at any given time.”

Elaborating on the second theme, he continues: “If everyone had an electric car, we’d know exactly what the load is going to be. As it is, however, the adoption of the technology could revolve locally around trends, for instance somebody on a particular street buying one, and then all their neighbours following suit. At that point it will be difficult to predict where spikes in demand are going to be.”

One further challenge facing the industry, meanwhile, is the increasing use of smart metering on the part of the general public. While the connectivity aspect isn’t such an issue in the UK where the comms companies themselves (for instance, Arqiva) are responsible for the supply of broadband, it is becoming an item of increasing focus in the rest of the world where the energy companies themselves get the blame if something goes wrong.

Again, according to Grilli, there is no one-size-fits-all solution in this area of work either, due to the different landscapes and therefore requirements from country to country. “The need for ubiquitous coverage is different depending on where you go,” he says. “Meters are traditionally positioned in different places around the house from country to country. A network which will do metering in the US, where meters are on an outside wall, will not do it in Germany, due to the devices in question being in the basement.”

The generation of energy is a multi-faceted, ever-evolving field. Keep reading Critical Communications Today for all the latest developments within the sector.

Author: Philip Mason