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Smart-Grid Strategy: Why Wireless?

Radio waves deliver flexibility and security.

Fortnightly Magazine - September 2009

Spectrum Inc. “However, real-time command and control of higher level grid devices are of equal, if not greater, importance in the drive for overall grid efficiency. Utilities are looking at deploying thousands of smart-grid devices throughout the network, in addition to metering.” Most of these devices can use wireless communications platforms—such as the narrowband PCS spectrum the company uses in its FullMAX broadband system, which provides utilities with their own private wide-area communications network for command and control of smart-grid devices.

Ed Solar, CEO of Arcadian Networks, agrees that meters are only scratching the surface of wireless potential. The company provides last-mile wireless-carrier services to utilities and energy companies. “Wireless smart grid isn’t just limited to metering and distribution automation,” he says. “It covers a lot more, such as demand response, asset management, substation automation, and feeder optimization.” In addition, according to Solar, it can go beyond fixed voice and fixed data, to include mobile voice and mobile data. In this way, wireless communications can expand beyond just tying devices together, to tying the entire enterprise together. As such, Solar says utilities shouldn’t take a fenced-in approach to wireless smart grid.

“If you apply it from generation through distribution, the grid becomes much more intelligent,” he suggests. Three years ago, for example, Arcadian Networks helped G&T cooperative, Great River Energy, build the first large-scale wireless smart-grid infrastructure in the nation. Part of this involved wireless surveillance of video monitoring at substations. “We all talk about the same challenges in this industry—geography and the need to manage highly dispersed assets, aging communications systems, security and cost,” stated David Saggau, Great River Energy’s CEO. The wireless-network approach allowed the utility to bring “an improved service level to customers throughout our service area.”

Private or Public?

Probably the biggest question these days related to wireless smart grid is whether the wireless technology should be private (owned by the utility) or public (using existing wireless carriers).

One company offering technology for use with the latter is Cooper Power Systems, which recently entered into an agreement with AT&T to jointly market and sell Cooper’s smart- grid sensor devices that are certified on AT&T’s wireless data network. “This allows utilities to receive real-time system performance data to operate their electric grids, reduce the need for on-site inspections, and identify and solve problems that could cause outages or increase system energy losses,” explains Tom Pitstick, vice president and general manager of energy automation solutions for Cooper.

One device that is part of the arrangement is OutageAdvisor, which transmits the location and other detailed information about fault conditions in real-time over AT&T’s wireless network. The technology is designed to increase grid reliability and reduce the time and cost associated with traditional methods of identifying and repairing grid problems. The other device is VARAdvisor, which monitors the status of fuses on distribution capacitor banks and notifies the utility of a fuse failure, so it can identify the cause of the failure, replace the fuse, and get the capacitor bank back on-line.

Other vendors are banking on the growth of private networks—most