Utilities need to modernize their grid infrastructure but face a unique challenge: change is tricky when the stakes are high.
Technology is changing faster than ever, from the latest smartphones and devices to automated tools being introduced across industries to ease workloads. For essential mission-critical services such as electric power, failure is not an option.
To stay prepared and accelerate a digital transformation, utilities need to adapt. As the world increasingly relies on technology and renewable resources, a modernized grid is key for efficiently and sustainably meeting ever changing and growing energy demands.
Out With the Old, In with the New
Most of the U.S. electric grid was built in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, more than 70% of the U.S. electric grid is more than 25 years old. As the current infrastructure ages, it becomes more susceptible to safety and reliability issues, security threats, outages, and damage from weather-related incidents, particularly in the face of climate change.
Modernizing the grid is quickly becoming a necessity. To stay resilient and improve reliability, power grid operators must move on from legacy communications infrastructure. Global standards-based wireless connectivity is critical.
And it’s not just in the U.S. The modern world’s infrastructure depends on a reliable supply of electricity to power our homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, and more. For energy providers to keep up with the demand and continue offering reliable services, they need to make structural changes to the grid infrastructure leveraging reliable communications network.
By upgrading aging power grid infrastructure and incorporating new technologies, utilities can enhance the efficiency of energy transmission and distribution, reduce line losses, extend useful life of grid assets, and improve system capacity. For example, integrating a wireless, always-on sensor network that can adjust to real-time demand and help identify outages before they spread, is crucial in digitalizing and automating the grid. Modernization isn’t just about preventing failures, it’s also about building a more robust and reliable grid that can meet increasing energy demands efficiently and sustainably.
Global Standards-Based Wireless Connectivity is Key
The first phase is to harden the grid by assessing risks, then taking strategic steps to proactively mitigate them to improve key infrastructure and prevent power outages—mainly due to aging infrastructure, storms and weather changes. Part of that involves revamping the communications infrastructure. With global standards-based cellular network technology, grid operators can future-proof the grid by consolidating dozens of legacy technologies into one unified network, which enables more advanced use cases and simplifies operational complexities.
When utilities employ private mission-critical broadband at every grid segment, a wide range of benefits helps increase electrical grids’ reliability, safety, increases the capital asset base and operational efficiency while also cutting operating expenses.
Mission-critical 4G and 5G networks enable reliable transmission and distribution of power grid-related information. This can help providers advance their operations by granting systems the ability to self-monitor, self-diagnose, and self-heal through automation and remote monitoring. Mission-critical fixed and mobile broadband communications also offer far more flexibility for network rollouts and network-ready devices, which increases the capabilities of the grid and opens new possibilities for long-term expansion. Applications such as a self-healing grid, or drones-based remote asset monitoring to help real-time maintenance decision-making, and reducing calls for maintenance dispatch—known as truck-rolls—at the same time become part of regular grid operating processes.
Guarding the Grid
Because electric grids are important to our daily lives, safety, and well-being, they are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks that can cause widespread, devastating blackouts. Increasing security is essential to preventing these attacks and maintaining the system integrity vital for networked communications to continue operating efficiently.
One of the biggest security threats is data sent off-site for processing and storage. But with Private LTE and 5G, providers can use the most secure wireless standards yet to enable private networks and edge computing that keeps the data on-site and within the control of the utilities. Updating the grid with the right tools and technologies includes adding security systems that monitor network systems to flag and isolate any unwanted interference from intruders attempting to access confidential data points or scramble communication channels.
Resilience in the Face of Emergencies
Security systems are critical to combatting bad actors—but some threats are harder to control. Natural disasters, extreme weather events, and other unforeseen emergencies must be considered. A modernized grid can better withstand and recover from these threats by incorporating advanced technologies and strategies.
For instance, by implementing smart grid technologies, real-time monitoring and data analysis enable proactive identification of potential issues, allowing for timely responses and preventive measures—such as the ability for faster location, isolation, and service restoration in down-conductor scenarios. In addition, control of integrated distributed energy resources and microgrids into the grid can provide localized power generation and storage capabilities to mitigate any noise in the system, and allow communities to maintain essential services during power outages.
So, while we don’t quite have the technology to control the weather, by enhancing the resilience of the utility grid, utilities can strengthen their ability to withstand disruptions, protect critical infrastructure, and ensure the reliable delivery of electricity to homes, businesses, and other important facilities.
Power grid service interruption isn’t just dangerous—it’s also expensive. Smart grid technologies that optimize energy usage, for instance, help avoid waste. And improved reliability and resilience in the face of disasters help reduce the economic costs associated with outages, like lost productivity and damaged equipment. In the long run, the cost savings of modernizing the grid, including communications infrastructure, outweigh the initial investment and pave the way for a cost-effective, sustainable energy infrastructure.
Path Toward Digital Transformation Starts with Trusted Partners and Proven Tools
The tools and technologies employed to power our grid are not just there to offer us entertainment or make our lives easier–they’re often a matter of life and death. In hospitals, for example, it’s not just a matter of keeping the lights on. That’s why utilities are traditionally very deliberate in adopting technology. They need trusted partners and proven solutions to ensure the deployed cellular network—such as LTE/5G technologies—is foolproof.
As grid operators upgrade their infrastructure, working with partners who have successfully deployed mission-critical private networks at other utilities is crucial. For partners such as Ericsson, showing up in the industry means aligning with utilities and their key performance indicators, or KPIs, regarding sustainability, energy management, decarbonization at cell sites, and more. The right partners follow through with what they say they will provide and are available to work alongside utilities to respond to changes, adjust, resolve issues, and ensure success as new technologies are deployed.
Ultimately, we all benefit from a modernized grid—the longer we wait, the further behind we will get as the demands on the grid keep getting stronger. As the world continues evolving alongside technology, it’s time for utilities to seek the partners and tools they need to modernize the grid and move toward the goal of a truly digital grid.
— Koustuv Ghoshal is Vice President and Head of Utilities and Energy at Ericsson.