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Grid unlocked

SCW talks to Dave Christophe and Veronique Addi of Nokia about the company’s ongoing and growing involvement in utilities transformation:  by Nolan O’Connor, Features Editor

This fusion of communications technologies with energy is creating new business models
This fusion of communications technologies with energy is creating new business models

Electricity distribution is no longer a one-way street. The old model of the electricity supply emanating from a centralised source to an end user is just so, well, last century.


However, the growing trend towards renewable energy sources such as solar and wind is playing havoc with the grid, as power is now multi-directional, weather dependent and therefore highly inconsistent.


Existing infrastructure can’t handle these demands, which is why smart grids, the ability to integrate information/communication technologies with the grid in order to manage new demands and supply, are required.


It is estimated that by 2020, European utilities will require a €600 billion investment in grid networks, with two thirds of this focused on distribution. This fusion of communications technologies with energy is creating new business models, and providing the telecom industry with the opportunity to become part and parcel of the electricity value chain.


SmartCitiesWorld caught up with Nokia’s Dave Christophe, director: utility solutions marketing and Veronique Addi, director of business development Europe for smart grid to talk about Nokia’s on-going and growing involvement in utility transformation.


“It’s all about how LTE technology can be utilised by utilities to build their own private network in order to bring about more control and automation and therefore greater efficiency and reliability further out towards the edge of the distribution grid,” says Christophe.


The move towards LTE is driven by the utilities’ reliance on new capabilities such as distributed generation protection and automatic fault isolation and protection switching which require reliable communications for real-time flow of information.


These needs are different from those required for smart metering, for example, so utilities are having to look at the communications that they’ve got to see if it has sufficient reliability, security and enough bandwidth to address the new mission critical control requirements with these additional applications.


Latest standards developments for LTE have bought about faster data rates, lower latency, which translates into faster access to data, which is all good news for utility field workers helping them become more productive and efficient.


New standards released last June such as Narrow Band Internet of Things (NB-IoT) and LTE enhanced Machine Type Communications (LTE eMTC or also referred to as LTE-M) were deliberately geared towards IoT by providing an extended reach, lower device costs and requiring less batteries power, all exactly what is required for new distribution power models. This enables communications for a growing number of machine-to-machine (M2M) connections and deployment of an IoT strategy that includes sensors, meters, intelligent electronic devices and more.The benefit here is that broadband and narrowband all work on the same spectrum in the same network.


Nokia has partnered with over 200 utilities during the past 30 years as they build their communications networks and modernised these by transforming to a converged IP/packet communications solution.


Over the past five years it has worked with so-called transmission networks – connecting energy generation to local towns and modernising TDM or SDH – based communications and migrating them to IP/MLPS and optical.

However, the next phase for utilities is all about how to push their communications out closer to homes, businesses and places where there are no communication points, because in the past these simply weren’t required.


“For those utilities that are profit-driven and they have a distribution business -- in other words they are distributing electricity to consumers and to businesses -- they know they have to change their business model because of the introduction of renewables and storage and the resulting flattening and then declining demand for utility provided power,” says Christophe.


“They know they need to find new endeavours and they all recognise part of what they are going to need is information. It’s a foundation. It’s not all of it, but it’s going to be a piece of what they need to make that next big step.”


Last February in the US Nokia announced a solution with AT&T that is all about putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Here AT&T leases dedicated broadband spectrum to utilities, while Nokia provides them with all the equipment needed for them to build their own private LTE network.


Helping utilities to modernise depends very much on the country and the type of utility one is dealing with. According to Veronique Addi, Europe is very much a mixed bag, with innovative utilities moving towards different solutions, while others watch and wait to see how the landscape evolves.


“Italy has been very innovative in technology and business models. Spain, Portugal, France and Netherlands are very advanced,” she says.


Transformation however, for utility companies is not just about the technology; it’s also about the culture. Says Addi, “It’s about facing the customer and becoming far more customer-centric.”


Communications modernisation is being forced on utilities in some countries as TDM and Frame Relay carrier services that connect sites such as substations are discontinued. Replacement options include new MPLS and Ethernet carrier services at some sites and the extension of a utility’s IP/MPLS network to additional sites when it’s cost effective.


One of the biggest issues that utilities are faced with when extending distribution communications is access to broadband spectrum, which differs from country to country. For non-critical applications, unlicensed spectrum is workable but where the safety and reliability of the grid is paramount a deterministic communications pathway with licensed spectrum to devices is absolutely necessary.


Not surprisingly, cyber security is a big issue that utilities seek means to protect these mission critical networks and, according to Christophe at the European Utilities show in Barcelona back in November, this was an issue that was very high on their agenda.


Nokia suggests a multi layer approach to security with layers of control that work together at various levels to protect all assets. To address the growing threats, Nokia NetGuard endpoint security is one such control that with its analytics engine monitors and analyses traffic and reports anomalies on IoT device communications. However, Christophe points out that security isn’t all about technological defence, it’s also about procedures and physical controls.


Earlier this year, Nokia set up an IoT Community within the ng Connect Program. This new IoT group collaborates on solution concepts, trials new solutions and explores how partners can work together for revenue generation. This group has bought about the collaboration between both big and small players, reflecting the unlikely partnerships thrown up by digital disruption and innovation.


To enhance automation and remote control of the evolving grid and its energy flows distribution, utilities will continue their communications modernisation and extend their network to realize greater efficiency, reliability and safety.


In areas with rapid distributed generation growth – solar, wind, the pace will quicken. A communications network that extends towards the grid edge with required reliability and security is an essential foundation of solutions to unlock the evolving distribution grid’s future potential.



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