A few weeks back, Tait Communications and Land Mobile hosted a panel of European radio comms experts at New Zealand House in London for a roundtable discussion on future strategies for the utilities industry.
Shareholder interest, government policy, environmental agendas and growing costs have increased expectations of utility providers as critical service providers. In response, the industry is increasingly moving towards wireless communications with digital radio seemingly dominating the discussion.
A panel of European utilities experts share their views on the key communications issues facing the industry today.
- Technology Platforms
For over six decades, utilities have used private radio-based internal communication systems to monitor and control their networks and infrastructure. These systems have evolved to receive data, monitor remote unmanned sites or act as a primary voice and data communications tool between operational teams onsite and in the field. Smart metering is also supported to monitor supply and quality, facilitate demand management and introduce dynamic tariffs.
Some countries are not relying exclusively on high-capacity radio communications systems. Broadband power lines, fibre optics as well as public radio technologies such as GPRS and 3G, are increasingly being used by European utilities.
- Spectrum Constraints
With this wide choice of technologies available, access to suitable spectrum – across a range of frequency bands – has become critical for determining the industry’s future direction. Licensed spectrum, which tends to offer greater protection against interference and congestion, is preferred. However, the availability of and access to, the spectrum is limited across Europe.
Our experts agree that this will be a global issue with all utilities wanting to become greener, smarter etc.
As utilities continue to migrate from analogue to digital, investment growth should be considered. It was observed, for example, that grid automation cannot happen because the automation technology simply does not exist.
In the UK, time scales are key. Utilities must put their bids in now for the 2015-2023 regulatory period. They must guess at what spectrum will be available and at what cost, which affects their choice of technology. Where to invest? – A challenge for both communications vendors and utility comms decision makers.
- Unified Critical Communications
Utilities rely on a number of separate networks for different purposes e.g. emergency voice, SCADA network, information network and perhaps a teleprotection network. Can utilities meet their requirements over a single network? It was agreed that the future lies in combining multiple solutions through a single communications infrastructure.
- The Customer is in the Driving Seat
Customer choice and behaviour will drive smart infrastructure. A utility won’t know which customer will purchase an electrical vehicle or who will install PV on a residential roof. The European vision for the smart grid puts the customer at the centre of this new dynamic energy supply. Utilities must look carefully at applications; wide area measurement, substation management for grid applications and supply/demand balancing and load forecasting, renewable integration and storage integration on a wider integration level.
As a result of customer actions, communications become mission critical as newly generated power is fed in at all different layers of the network. Utilities must have visibility, in real time, of what is happening on their network.
Our experts agree that accurate metering provides accurate data, which can be used to forecast future needs. It’s just one tool in a utility’s belt to help keep the lights on.
If you liked this post, do take a look at our Communications Solutions for Utilities.