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Technology Corridor

Are consumer broadband over powerline (BPL) services enough to make the business case for utilities?
Fortnightly Magazine - January 2005

soon will be standard equipment in many laptop computers. By bringing mobility of Internet access to the broadband mix, WiMax could be an attractive option for some consumers in the next few years.

Utility Applications Might Tip the Scale

However, unlike many of the alternative broadband technologies, BPL is unique in its promise as a high-value communications system for utility-specific applications. While consumer broadband service may be the initial application and an important revenue source for a BPL network, a powerline-based network expands options for the power industry and offers both savings and revenue opportunities.

Among a long list of possible services: dynamic pricing, demand response, and remote monitoring, as well as internal utility applications such as outage detection and restoration monitoring, equipment monitoring to allow conditional maintenance rather than typical preventative maintenance, fault location, distributed resource control and dispatch, lightning detection, and switching.

Those already engaged in BPL commercial deployments are expecting such utility applications to improve the business case as networks are built out. The city of Manassas, which uses data from the BPL network management system to help locate outages, intends to integrate the system with its outage mapping system. Other utility applications are anticipated in the future, including fault detection and automated meter reading.

Likewise, Cinergy's Current Broadband is investigating outage detection and restoration service, along with automated meter reading. Enhanced power distribution services-including remote switching, power-quality monitoring, direct-load control, and peak-shaving options-also are factors in the company's business case.

Some companies, such as Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), see utility applications as a critical element of BPL. The development and integration of BPL-enabled utility applications is a primary focus of a phased BPL deployment at the company, which is in the field-trial stage of substation equipment monitoring, distribution automation, advanced meter communications, and load control.

Con Edison, an investor in BPL technology developer Ambient, also is looking to utility applications to drive the business case. In fact, Con Edison's Tim Frost, director of corporate planning, says utility applications are the primary motivator for the utility's interest. Although the company is testing broadband Internet access for customers, the field tests are handled by partner Earthlink and are not the primary focus of Con Edison's efforts.

Frost envisions BPL as a potentially vital part of the long-term strategy for creating an intelligent, self-sensing grid. "The first thing to focus on is creating the intelligent grid," Frost says. "There is considerable promise for non-linear optimization models that can work with an intelligent grid to potentially save energy, create new capacity, figure location value of assets, and where to place distributed generation or distributed resources."

EPRI's Gellings weighs in with analysis done by the Consortium for Electric Infrastructure to Support a Digital Society (CEIDS), which evaluated the business case for a system that could support meters or sets of devices that could be the communications and control hub for the customer. The study, using California as its hypothetical area of deployment, found that demand response, avoided costs of new generation and T&D, and other energy optimization features make a strong case for