Learn, Define And Develop The Evolution Of Critical Communications

Network Power

Report from Land Mobile


To examine some of the key communications issues facing today’s utility industry, Land Mobile convened an international panel of experts to share their views

Topics discussed by Land Mobile’s guests ranged widely, from the balance between wired and wireless communications in their networks, trade-offs between the use of public and private telecoms networks, and the impact of government regulation, to their expectations for the future, including voice and data applications and the role of IP.

Opening the day’s sessions, Adrian Grilli, in the chair, first asked the panel about the basic requirement for radio communications in modern utility networks.

Adrian Grilli: When we talk to people outside – parliamentarians or whoever, because we are usually after radio spectrum – they then always come back to us and say, ‘Why don’t you use wires, or use public networks?’

It would be interesting to see what proportion of your communications goes over radio as against over fixed networks, and what proportion is public rather than private. I know most of the UK utilities will have thousands of mobile connections, but then they have their critical communications over private radio. And they have fibre to lots of places – but they need to use radio.

Daragh Moore (ESB Networks, Ireland): Up to now, the Scada control in the networks is at quite a high level. It’s only recently that we’ve gone down to what we call the medium-voltage network, which is the next thing above low tension. It’s when you get down to the lower levels that wireless becomes much more attractive, and economics are driving you more towards wireless.

With ‘smart grid’ and needing greater control of the distribution network, particularly in Ireland, where we have a lot of wind being connected to the distribution network, wireless is going to be increasingly important in the future. We use the public mobile networks currently for some of the lower-level Scada-type control applications. Looking longer term, we see they may become more critical.

Currently we have achieved significant improvements in customer outage statistics by using what we call distribution automation – using the public mobile networks. Those kind of applications are very nice to have – they improve the customer statistics, but if the network goes (the outside communication network we are using), it’s not a huge issue. If you get network faults, you will get a longer outage on the customers.

Alberto Sendín (Iberdrola, Spain): In traditional application scenarios, we have two segments in the network. The first one is the backbone network, and that is basically fibre optics. We have 17 000 km of fibre optics. In our case, that fibre is paid for by the [telecoms] carriers Iberdrola is carrying.

As a complement to that, the rest of the group of secondary substations – plus their reclosers, which are for medium voltage rural overhead lines, usually – are covered with radio. And that is traditional PMR at VHF and UHF – analogue radio. We are in the process of migrating that to digital; again, PMR, proprietary technologies. No standard there! And we have around 4000 points where we provide this kind of communications.

For smart grid, our driver in Iberdrola is the smart metering mandate we have, issued in the year 2007. We have to change all our meter base for meters capable of being remotely accessed. For that, a new network is being built. That network is built upon the other one – there is a complement there – and the idea is: let’s try to provide communication to meters again in two segments. Let’s provide communication from the secondary substations to the meters using PLC (and there we are using narrowband technologies and the PRIME standard); and then we have another segment which is the backbone among the different secondary substations.

So for the smart grid scenario, for communications among the substations we’re using basically two different technologies. One of them is broadband PLC to provide interconnection between the secondary substations; and we are also providing public communications using GPRS and 3G. Why public? Because it is what we have available. We cannot provide a private solution there because there is no frequency band assigned to us for this kind of thing.

To solve the lack of performance we see sometimes with the public communications network, we are providing connectivity to two different telecoms service providers and we are at the same time trying to put our service on one or the other, depending on which one is available.

Pedro Gama (EDP Distribution, Energias de Portugal): We have a very similar case as Iberdrola has. Regarding the Scada on our high-voltage network, we have about 400 high-voltage primary substations – for us, high voltage is 66 kV. About 99 per cent of them have fibre optic, so we have about 7000 km of optical cables on our lines.

Typically we have the traditional PDH and SDH network on that fibre-optic but we are also now migrating to IP and GPRS. We are trialling with a public operator.

Regarding the medium voltage, we have about 5000 secondary substations or reclosers; so 50 per cent are connected by old VHF analogue radio and 50 per cent by public operator GPRS.

Regarding the smart grid applications, we have a different case scenario. Nowadays on secondary substations we are using mainly GPRS. We are trialling with RF mesh, with WiMAX, also with Wi-Fi. With the RF mesh we are looking a bit deeper, not only for the secondary substations but also for the meters themselves. So for us this could be a solution.

Regarding our backbone, we also use microwave links – usually for closing rings, to give us some redundancy and protection for our systems. We have 200–300 microwave radio links.

And last, PLC on the high-voltage network: we discontinued that technology.

Aggressive regulation

Peter Moray (European Utilities Telecom Council, EUTC): From a UK perspective, I think we see very similar to the three companies that are here. They have a mix of microwave, they have trunked communications, especially at their HV level, which I would say is 132 kV. Then 33 kV is the next voltage down… and indeed I think some companies in the UK are still building communications into those networks, probably using wireless rather than fibre.

Fibre is very expensive in their terms to put in on a 33 kV network. I’m not sure that they all have fibre at their 132 kV level. So I think there is a big build out of fibre to come.

Similarly to EDP and Iberdrola, there have been a lot of automation schemes at medium-voltage level, driven by a very aggressive energy regulator. This has been going on for 10, 12, 15 years in the UK. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has quite deliberately targeted network performance since privatization in the early 1990s, and has encouraged companies to put some level of intelligence in their medium-voltage networks in order to drive this parameter called ‘customer minutes lost’ – which is all around the number of customers that are disconnected over a certain period of time.

Each region that’s called a distribution network operator, they also have to put their own geographically-related targeting KPIs into the energy regulator. He tabulates them and publishes them and it shows who has a good network performance and who has poor network performance. And he either uses the stick or the carrot to encourage them to do better.

Encouraging them to do better has driven a lot of automation or remote control in the medium voltage networks, to the point where I suspect almost any DNO (distribution network operator) in the UK now has several thousand, and some probably have 8000–10 000, remote-control points in their medium voltage network.

Most of that has been done on a whole mix of wireless-based solutions. They use additional outstations on their primary point-to-multipoint radios. They use unlicensed spectrum, they use PMR, they use almost anything that came to hand – anything that was cost-effective.

There’s no doubt, the UK DNOs have been driven very hard to reduce costs, from what was a privatized industry in 1992-93 to where we are now. The industry runs on a shadow of the people who used to be involved. And getting rid of people has been another driver for automation and technology.

If we look into Central Europe, at countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia and others – maybe Poland as well – they haven’t had these drivers. So Central Europe, I think, is going to play a large game of catch-up – starting from a very low base where they know absolutely nothing about their medium voltage network performance. They have no knowledge of how the network is behaving. If supplies go off, they just wait for somebody to tell them. They try to understand how big a problem it is by how many customers report a problem. But today in the UK, that’s the way it works here! Your electricity company has no idea whether your electricity is on or off. They wait for you to report it.

There are couple of other issues. Alberto drew a differential between smart metering and smart infrastructure. The UK is different from everybody else in this smart metering thing in that, in the UK, the energy retail sector is responsible for metering. Everywhere else in the world (I think I’m right in saying that), the infrastructure owner – the distribution system operator – is responsible for the meter.

Business cases

The UK view of how we deal with smart metering, and what is being mandated from the [European] Commission, is quite different from the way the rest of Europe is approaching smart metering.

In principle, the issues are the same – you’ve got to read the meter and give that data to whoever needs it – but outside of the UK, companies like EDP and Iberdrola, because they are responsible for the meter as well as the smart infrastructure, can take a slightly different view about the business case and about the technologies that might be needed to try and draw this whole thing together.

From a DNO or DSO perspective, smart metering will create value for us as customers. That’s what we’re being told and that’s what we hope. It will create value for the retail sector of the industry because they have huge call centres now, and when they’ve got accurate billing information they will be able to hopefully reduce all the customer enquiries around billing. We will be billed, presumably electronically, for what we use every month.

So you see customers getting benefits, you see one part of the industry getting benefits. The DSO that sits in the middle is going to have to make all this investment in technology to read the meters, to pass that information to other interested parties. What does the DSO get from it? Yet they are making the investment!

So there is a very difficult business case to be made within the distribution operator around smart metering. That’s a challenge that a lot of people are looking at.

Adrian Grilli: And the crunch, as we say, will come when it comes to demand management. At least if the distribution company has got the connectivity and responsibility to the smart meter, then they have a much more controllable mechanism for demand management – whereas it’s difficult to see how the distribution companies can run demand management if the communications to the meter is the responsibility of a third party. But that’s down the road.

Peter Moray: That’s a little way off. But of course it does impact immediately into what we are going to call the smart infrastructure.

One of the business drivers for the whole smartness of everything is the idea that we may choose to have local generation (let’s call it distributed generation, because that term is used in the industry), whether that is a PV array on my house or a small farm of PV, or whether it’s a single wind turbine on my house or a wind turbine on a hill. They all connect into the network at different levels. Very, very big wind farms will connect into the TSO, the transmission system operator. Anything below a certain level is connected to the distribution system operator. And the voltage level at which they connect depends on the number of turbines and the amount of energy that the wind farm or the distributed energy source can produce.

So the DSO, or the DNO, has all these energy sources being connected to its network at different voltage levels. And the lowest is me, with my little two- or three-panel PV. Nevertheless, it’s just as important to me that I am able to sell my excess energy – because that’s what my retailer will allow me to do.

The DSO now has to look at all these energy sources producing energy to its network. The most complex is probably down at low voltage level – my house, your house. And that’s where the meter again becomes important, because it has to measure what I use – what I import from the network and what I export to the network. So I’m a producer and consumer of energy. And there are millions of us, potentially 25–26 million in the UK. We won’t all have that facility because we don’t all live in houses that can have a PV. Nonetheless in principle there will be millions of these.

So the meter becomes a two-way device. It can measure energy in both directions and it communicates in both directions with whoever needs to know the information it contains. That information is very important to the energy retailer: they are the people that I’m going to buy energy from and I will sell energy to.

But the DSO also needs to have some of that knowledge about what’s happening at my meter terminals, depending on what sort of conditions exist on the network. So whilst the DSO is largely responsible for gathering meter data and sending it to whoever needs it, for its own network operations it also needs some of that information. So the DSO is in another cleft stick, where it’s not only providing a service for others, around energy sales, but it’s also gathering meter information or network information down at the meter level. And these are the business drivers that are making these companies look at all these aspects of communications.

Green energy surges

Some of the issues around PV or local generation are already surfacing. Certainly in Germany, some companies are actually having what’s called an overvoltage network because the PV (photovoltaics) feed energy into the low voltage network. When you get too much energy being fed in for what’s being used, the voltage rises – so they get overvoltage on the network.

The network is supposed to operate inside statutory limits – in the UK it’s 230 volts, +10 per cent, –15 per cent. Now, if you go low in volts, that’s less of a problem. Somebody’s LCD TV might not work. But if it goes high voltage, it might blow up the LCD TV. That could cause compensation claims and all the things that go with that.

So in certain parts of Germany, now, some DNOs and DSOs are having to forcibly disconnect PV at times of the day because they cannot let the network go above a certain voltage. They are desperately looking for smart solutions to try and solve this problem. Worse than that, my understanding is that when they disconnect, they still have to pay for the energy that would have been transmitted into the network. So they get hit with a double problem. And these are real problems today.

So the idea of managing many, many generation sources at low voltage is certainly a real problem today and it’s being faced by some companies. That’s before we even get to electric cars – and that starts off a whole new set of problems around charging them!

Alberto Sendín: Everyone understands that you need investment and certain recurring costs for the photovoltaic electrical part – but we have not been successful in making everyone understand that there are communications investments and costs associated with that.

Pedro Gama: If you look at photovoltaic cells, I can generate a lot of energy in a very small time. Imagine a cloud passes through – it passes in a few seconds and so I have a lot of difference between any time and ten seconds later. And I don’t know if I’m going to invest a lot in a communication network that can get me that information almost in real time.

Regarding Portugal, nowadays the regulator prohibits [feeding in] more than 25 per cent of the total power of the secondary substation, so people cannot connect if we achieve that.

Critical installations

Peter Moray: We haven’t got to the wireless thing yet. But I thought it was important that we understand some of the basic business drivers, the basic challenges that are going to make communications absolutely critical. Companies like these DNOs and DSOs put lots of communication in because they consider their assets to be critical. Communications to the high-voltage network and transmission system operator’s network is absolutely called mission-critical communications.

Medium voltage networks have never really been seen as mission-critical because, as we explained, you wait for someone to ring up and tell you the ‘electric’ has gone off! I think, as these companies move into this smart environment, they will start to say that communications at medium voltage will become mission-critical. As Pedro has just said, they will need to start monitoring all of these assets almost in real time.

And as you get into this lower level of the network, where there are hundreds of thousands of asset points, the mission-critical label means that they will change their views on what sort of communications solutions best suit that part of the network. And GPRS or public networks, as we perceive them today, are generally considered not suitable.

That’s a very wide-ranging statement and we haven’t got any telecom operators around the table to challenge that. But I’ve had these arguments and I’m quite happy to sit opposite them and argue the toss as I do in Europe from time to time, in Brussels.

Using public networks

Pedro Gama: Typically when we have problems with public operators – and 50 per cent of our reclosers and secondary substations are using their networks – it’s when there are also problems on our electrical network. So when we have a meeting with them and say that on a particular occasion the availability of the network was below several per cent, usually what they say is, ‘Yes, because we lost power!’ They always point the finger to us! And at least there is some truth in what they’re saying.

Kevin Delaney: Are you deemed to be a public service, even though you are a private company? In the UK, we have 16 levels of hierarchy in the cellular networks. The ‘blue light’ services are right near the top – so if something goes wrong and there’s a public emergency, Joe Public gets their service cut off. I’m intrigued as to whereabouts a utility company comes in that hierarchy. Are you deemed to be an important customer just because you provide the electricity for the network?

Alberto Sendín: Priority is assuming that the service is available. We have plenty of instances in which we are controlling a transformer in the network which is feeding a base station. So we are controlling that transformer through a GPRS service which is being provided by that base station!

Pedro Gama: Many public operators look at us utilities and don’t see us as a big customer. We have a lot of equipment, but our bandwidth and data are relatively low. One or two customers with gigabytes of traffic will pay a lot more to that public operator than us. So when they look at us, they don’t see us as a big customer.

Mission-critical – or not

Peter Moray: It’s worth saying, I think, that the industry recognizes that there is this challenge between an industry that feels it has to, from a cost perspective, make best use of public networks where they are appropriate, but at the same time it has to look at what is right for its own business.

There has been this gulf between what public telecom operators believe they are capable of supporting in the future, especially around smart grid. They have tended, I believe, to say, ‘Leave smart grid to us: we are doing LTE, we’ve got lots of new technology, all sorts of clever stuff coming along, M2M – all these things can support smart grid.’ And I believe the public operators have been lobbying and emphasizing that story within Brussels. So the DG Connect or DG Infso were very surprised to hear us, as the utilities, come along and say, ‘No, no, we don’t trust that lot at all with our mission-critical communications!’ And their reaction to that was positive.

The EUTC and many of our members, and certainly Iberdrola, have attended a series of workshops between telecom operators and the industry. Those workshops are still running, but they’ve been morphed into some expert groups within the Smart Grid task force in Brussels. So this dialogue is ongoing… Indeed, the Commission is very actively trying to help to promote some projects around collaborative working between telecom operators and the utilities.

There’s another stream that goes with that and that’s the rollout of broadband in Europe. The Commission’s view that utilities, as they create more and more fibre in their networks, have an opportunity to support the rollout of broadband and help Europe to move closer to its objectives in its ideas of broadband for 2020.

Kevin Delaney: If you go licence-exempt, or cellular, you’ve no guarantee of quality of service. So inherently, by riding on a public network you are saying that that data is not critical.

Peter Moray: From the perspective of what smart metering is trying to achieve, if it’s measuring my use of energy and sending that information to my energy retailer, I would say that’s non-mission-critical – unless the retailer is going to be offering me spot tariffs, so if I put my washing machine on in the next 10 minutes I will get a really cheap rate. But energy has got to be a lot more expensive than it is today for us to do that.

Adrian Grilli: It can be arranged!

Feeding in

Peter Moray: I think where we then cross over is this idea from the DNO perspective about the way its network is operating. It may need some of that information in order to guarantee the security and everything else of its network.

Let me give you one example, because safety is on our agenda. When I put my photovoltaic in, I’m capable of feeding energy back into the network. So if the network operator wants to do some maintenance on the cables in the street, it has to ensure my photovoltaic cell is not capable of feeding energy. And everybody else’s photovoltaic has got to be disconnected.

So even from a safety perspective, if I put a generation source in my house, presumably the DSO needs to understand whether it is connected or not connected to the network. At the moment, with no local generation, if the DSO switches the substation off, deliberately planned, then it knows that the guy can go and work on the cable and he can touch the conductors.

Alberto Sendín: Smart metering, at least in Spain, is not yet a question of measurements. We are also mandated to provide features such as remote connection and disconnection, and there are some regulations there which have established which are the times to do that.

Adrian Grilli: If you are going to use your smart meter for demand management, it then can become mission-critical. Some of us saw, a couple of weeks ago, some National Grid figures of the network. To be topical, they gave us the curve of the Murray v. Federer match at Wimbledon, looking at the peaks in demand. They could tell you that there was going to be a surge at the end of each set or at the end of the match. They also had some idea of what sort of surge they were going to get. What they didn’t know was when the end of each set was going to be, and so when that surge was going to hit the network.

Building on your point, Peter, you were giving an example of PV and the rise in the low-voltage network. If you look at domestic PV, in the summer days when the sun does come up in the UK, it rises very quickly and all the photovoltaics will come up on the domestic network very quickly. There is no demand on a summer’s morning on the network; the only thing you got is fridges and freezers. So you have got a problem.

The other thing: on a winter’s night or whatever, you’ve got your base load of nuclear, and if it’s windy you’ve got a lot of wind generation. But now, with our green agenda, a lot of local authorities are switching off the street lights at midnight or 1 a.m. to save energy and save money. So what they are seeing is that domestic demand starts to fall because people are going to bed. But the underlying demand they used to have from streetlights is now starting to fall, yet they’ve got all the generation from nuclear. And if the wind builds up, they’ve got all this wind generation – and, as Alberto said, you’ve got to disconnect that to protect the network. So you must have telemetry control. Those are some of the challenges.

Peter Moray: The thing that’s missing out of the smart grid is storage. We can’t store energy today as we know it – not on a large scale, anyway. So maybe the electric vehicle will become our storage dump for oversupply of energy. Maybe when we go home in our little electric cars, I plug mine into the garage and it doesn’t actually start charging until four or five o’clock in the morning. Now that’s fine as long as I don’t need it at short notice. But I think the car thing will happen.

The requirement for radio

Adrian Grilli: Communications are nice to have in the distribution network and they gradually become critical… But all the applications we’ve talked about so far have been to fixed locations. And I remember that when we went to the Commission and the European parliamentarians, and they said: ‘If all these assets are fixed and they don’t move, why on earth do you need radio in the first place?’ Why do we need radio? Why can’t we just do it all on fixed networks, either public or private?

Pedro Gama: From my point of view, one of the most important is ease of deployment and of installation of the equipment. Of course, we have PLC also – it’s easy to install – but with fixed lines we need to ask the cable installer.

If I want to deploy a lot faster – a lot of meters, a lot of equipment – with radio I can put up a base station very near the place. So it’s easy to install. Also I can manage them very easily. And I can manage the growth of the network itself – it’s easier.

Within EDP, we have two ways: we have radio and the PLC, for the low voltage. For the medium voltage, radio is the best because typically the reclosers are in the worst places! Accessibility is very, very hard. So radio can be one of the best solutions. And of course, cost-effective.

Kevin Delaney: This sort of radio [PMR] is not glamorous, it’s not exciting, it’s just there doing a basic job – but you know it’s going to run for 30 or 40 years.

Regulators and regulation

Adrian Grilli: One of the key issues in this industry is that it’s a regulated industry. Usually you are trying to satisfy an energy regulator and a telecoms regulator. They may have requirements which differ. One of the messages that we’ve been saying to the commission is, ‘Could we have a little joined-up thinking between the various regulators?’

So if we just think about that: when we talk to them about the needs for comms and radio comms, do the regulators, radiocomms and energy, understand the issues? And how effective is our dialogue with them?

Peter Moray: One of the points I was going to make is that there is little consistency across Europe in respect of telecom regulations and how it is implemented. And indeed it’s even worse, probably, in energy regulation.

Pedro Gama (EDP, Portugal): We are in a regulated market. This year we started also a liberalized market. The market is moving to DSOs, it is open. And we continue to have a regulated market up until 2015. And why is that? On the liberalized market, we have six or seven contenders but they only offer one tariff. On the regulated market, which is a monopoly, EDP offers two tariffs, depending on the time of day. On the liberalized market, they don’t offer that.

On the regulated market, we have about 270 concessions, so the medium and low voltage belong to the municipalities. And we have high-voltage to the government. So – one plus 270. Typically they are concession contracts with a 20-year life span. So even with the open market, EDP will continue to be the DNO in Portugal for the biggest part of the next years.

Adrian Grilli: In the UK, one of the things which is driving automation is the concept of reducing customer minutes lost. If you can get supplies restored within three minutes, it doesn’t count towards your customer minutes lost. So do you have the same sort of regulator?

Pedro Gama: Yes, it’s the same. If everything is connected within three minutes, it’s not counted. Between the year 2000 and 2011 we went from about 600–700 minutes to almost 70.

In Portugal, the regulator doesn’t recognize the meter price. They say, the meter is yours, so you need to invest. That is why, when we look at smart metering, we have to look not only at the meter side but at all of the added functionalities that we are giving to the customer. Again, the regulator said, ‘This is your responsibility. If your meter costs €100, you have to pay €100.’ But we’re getting along.

On telecoms, I think it’s one of the best relationships that we have. They are always supportive of our needs. Even when we needed to do an RF mesh trial, they gave us the spectrum. We needed 870–876 MHz spectrum and they gave us about three years’ usage, no problem. We were trialling for three years. And Anacom said, ‘For the next three years it depends on what Europe will decide. If we are going to wait more for a European decision, you can continue to use the spectrum.’

Alberto Sendín (Iberdrola, Spain): First of all, our two regulators are wide apart – they don’t talk to each other. That’s one of the biggest concerns for us. I don’t think they see really the challenge which is in front for the smart metering obligation which we have.

Probably they perceive that we are solving everything with PLC, that’s the biggest message. ‘You are solving that with PLC, you don’t need radio.’ Which is not true, because PLC is just one segment of the network and we have to provide connectivity to the secondary substations. I don’t think they have been thinking too much on that. They just think we will be using GPRS services because of the smart metering business not being really real-time and because of the cost-effectiveness of the Iberdrola solution.

But we would like to have bands, or at least spectrum, in which we can develop our networks. Just as an example, in the smart grid we are deploying… we did the first deployment in Castelló, which is a city in the east part of Spain, near the coast, that has around 200 000 inhabitants. We have there 100 000 points of supply. We developed a very controlled test there to use non-licensed spectrum, to demonstrate that we need some band in which we could deploy those kind of solutions.

We are dismantling that demonstrator because people also working on that licence-exempt band are interfering with us…. So we’re just replacing that with GPRS.

Daragh Moore (ESB, Ireland): I won’t really talk about the energy supply side because that’s liberalized; really it doesn’t affect ESB networks. On the other side, I guess it’s quite similar to the UK in the sense of incentivizing network improvements in the distribution network.

There is an amount of money also for trials and pilots in terms of smart grid applications and smart networks. The smart metering is currently dealt with by the regulator separately, compared to other advances in the network.

In terms of dealing with the communications regulator, they will generally say they have to be impartial. We’ve got no basis for receiving special treatment.

Adrian Grilli: It’s actually mirrored in Brussels. We’ve got all these different segments and we’re saying, ‘Would you please talk to each other and have a consistent policy?’

Peter Moray (European Utilities Telecom Council): To some degree I think they are moving in that direction. The Smart Grids task force is now jointly chaired with DG Connect and DG Energy. One of the expert groups is looking at regulation and how regulation might need to change.

But certainly, I think it is recognized that these groups need to be a lot closer and need to be more effectively working together.

Competing interests

Adrian Grilli: From the radio side, it’s quite nice that we’ve got this European radio spectrum policy programme where at least we have a recognition there that a radio policy can be integrated in other Community policies like transport and energy. Most national governments don’t seem to have this joined-up view of radio spectrum and other policies.

From a UK perspective, Kevin, how often do you go to see Ofgem? Do you have coffee with them every week?

Kevin Delaney (Ofcom): We’ve never met them! Why would we? It’s your market; you know what’s best for you, therefore you negotiate with people you need to. From our perspective, we just supply a bit of paper that says, here is your frequency, this is the area you can operate in. And then the likes of the JRC will plan a network accordingly.

Certainly the impression we’ve had is that people are reinvesting in private networks again. Everyone probably did go down the cellular route and thought that was the answer to all their problems – and then it takes something like the 7/7 incidents for people to realize that a third-party network may not solve all your problems. Unless you are high up on the hierarchy level, you are going to lose comms straight away.

We always do our best to supply to JRC or any other energy supplier if the spectrum is there. We had a release earlier in the year from the Home Office of just under 6 MHz of spectrum, between 143 and 156 MHz, which is theoretically prime utility company and transport sector spectrum. We’ve put out ideas on what that spectrum could be used for. But as you can imagine, there are competing interests – and from people you wouldn’t expect. There are people who say we should have licence-exempt services in the spectrum.

I would imagine we will keep it as land mobile spectrum because we know there is a proven need for it – and I think it will become oversubscribed as soon as we release the spectrum because we know that people in this area are investing for 30 or 40 years.

The actual spectrum costs are nothing compared with the infrastructure costs – site rental, cost of base stations, etc. Adrian has customers who want to buy spectrum for the next 25–30 years.

Adrian Grilli: I think part of the issue is, when we are talking to Ofcom, we are talking to communications specialists who understand the need. Quite reasonably, the official line is that if it’s important for you to be treated as a special case, then it’s the Energy Department, the energy regulator, who ought to be knocking on your door, not the user. But then when we knock on the Energy Department’s or regulator’s door, they don’t understand comms!

Environmental concerns

Just before we leave the regulation side, one other element which I think constrains us quite a lot in certain areas is environmental regulation. Traditionally, governments have wanted utility infrastructure to be invisible, so we put it very low. But then when you want telecoms, particularly radio telecoms, you have to stick a mast up! Environmental planning and the visibility of the communications infrastructure, is that a big issue in other countries?

Alberto Sendín: It is affecting, sure, the deployment and the kind of things we do in the field. For example, at every substation, fundamentally primary ones, we tend to place a tower in order to have in the future a base station placed there. For some locations we succeed, for some others not, because usually these kind of substations tend to be disguised and they don’t want poles to be seen from anywhere.

Pedro Gama: One of the biggest issues that we have found, usually in the cities, in our secondary substations, typically inside buildings, is with the people that live there. Typically when we try to put in antenna, people from the building, they don’t allow it. Even if we explain what is the frequency, what is the power, they don’t want to hear it, they don’t allow it. Or they will allow it if you pay a fee! They think you are like the GSM operator, that pays for every site you put in.

In rural areas, typically there is not an issue, but of course in cities, where we have the most growth of the metropolitan network, we have a lot of issues. And that is why we choose GPRS, with a small antenna on the outside. They are always disguisable; there is no problem with that.

There are a lot of examples where we could use our own network, but our VHF is on 66–86 MHz, so imagine the length of the antennas! It’s almost impossible to put in that type of antenna in a city!

Adrian Grilli: I don’t know how much further we can go in terms of disguising infrastructure. I know quite a few of the buildings in London where the flagpoles contain their radio antennas, when they weren’t allowed to put antennas on the roof.

Pedro Ga ma: A year ago we inaugurated our new building in Oporto; nowadays every service is concentrated in Oporto. We have also our command centre which controls half of Portugal. But we were not allowed to put any antenna on that building! Why is that? Because the architect didn’t want it!

Alberto Sendín: We also have quite a dramatic example of that [the new Iberdrola building] in Bilbao, which is the tallest building there. There is a helicopter port on top of it, so you cannot place anything on top. But there is a very small gap to place the antennas, so we have a microwave link which is connected precisely to a base station on the other part of the mountain. So in the end we were lucky, but the difficulties were incredible.


Adrian Grilli: We’ve discussed a fair amount about what we want to use these comms for, but one of the critical elements is data rates. From an utility perspective, what sort of data rates are we looking for from these various applications that we are rolling out at the end of the access network? Are we talking about 2·4 kbit/s or 24 Mbit/s from these endpoints in the network?

Alberto Sendín: That’s probably the most difficult question to answer at this round-table. For me, the issue is more or less similar to what you said before, when you spoke of communications not being mission-critical at the beginning and evolving into mission-critical.

There is the same similarity between applications and data rate. If you are providing a higher speed connectivity application, in the next years it will be becoming such that it improves and takes that available connectivity.

This is the case for us. Imagine a remote control application. If you have GPRS connectivity, you may think of downloading firmware to the remote control unit. If you don’t have GPRS and you have a private solution capable of offering a channel which is served by different remote terminal units, you are going to think of that firmware update of the remote terminal unit. So in the end you’re going to operate differently those two infrastructures, which are aimed at the same purpose.

So if I had to say what is the average data rate you need for a secondary substation, I would say whatever the public service has today, GPRS can offer. That would be the standard.

Adrian Grilli: So you benchmark it against GPRS?

Alberto Sendín: It’s the benchmark which is coming out from the cost-effectiveness of any solution which has to be deployed here for purposes which are not business-case-driven. What I think we need is a data rate which is stable enough. Whatever it is, let’s have something which is available, stable and performing well.

Pedro Gama: But I’m looking also at latency. If I don’t have a lot of information but I need to command, I need to have access to that information almost instantly. So I need to have some technology that gives low latency.

With GPRS, we have certain issues. We are talking about 700 milliseconds. The first packet will have 1·4 to almost 2 seconds but then typically 700–1800 ms. And there are some advanced functionalities for which that is not enough. For addressing the photovoltaic, the voltage could drop significantly in 800 ms or one second, and we need to address that in 100–200 ms.

Also, we are commencing to talk about teleprotection on medium voltage. For high-voltage, we are using fibre-optic direct for 1 ms latency. I don’t know what will happen or what is the technology for the medium voltage. But again I will always look for latency and not only for the data rate.

Peter Moray: We hear of applications like predictive asset failure, where cable networks can be monitored with high-frequency injection that looks at the way voids start to form in paper-insulated power cables, and can indicate that a void is forming and therefore we may have a breakdown in some form or time period… At the instant that you want to communicate this potential problem, you need a lot of bandwidth – but you need it for a relatively short time. And of course that is the dichotomy that nobody wants to pay for. Nobody wants to install fibre on the basis that a void might appear in a power cable sometime in the future. So I think that really is a problem.

These types of applications are very interesting to the DNO or the transmission operator because they safeguard very large items of plant that can be very expensive to replace – such as a transformer that blows up…. It would be very nice to know if you’ve got a problem brewing in one of them, especially – and we mustn’t forget this – as all these assets get older.

From a UK perspective – oil-insulated, oil-impregnated power cables have been in the ground for 80 years. And we are not going to dig them all up and replace them. That will not happen. In any developed country, where the asset infrastructure is already there, and the vast majority of it is buried, we need to be looking for these sorts of applications.

Radio for voices

Adrian Grilli: Can I ask us to reflect on one application which we haven’t dealt with yet? You mentioned, Pedro, people. What role is voice going to play? How critical is voice going to be? We have been talking almost exclusively about data. Is voice still critical?

Pedro Gama: I have the perfect example. In 2009 we had a major storm in Portugal. We hadn’t heard of anything like it. Winds were up to 200 kilometres per hour. We had about 700 kilometres of cables on the ground, in the west part of Portugal.

What problems? In the first ten minutes, all the GSM operators went down. So, with 700 km of cables on the ground, we don’t need telecontrol – we need people to put those cables up! So everything was relying on voice.

Fortunately, our own network and also our trial network which we have on Tetra, was working. So we were able to command all those teams of people who were trying to turn the energy on. So in a catastrophe, we don’t need telecontrol – we only need to command people. Voice is fundamental.

Alberto Sendín: Probably the closest [parallel to] voice in a utility is an army in a peaceful scenario. You keep an army when you don’t have a war – so you keep voice [PMR] when you have the GSM system working. You never realize how much you need it until you are at a loss and you have those dramatic situations.

Peter Moray: If you then look at things which happen in the States, where they get these tropical storms, regularly and repeatedly, they are used to falling back to voice services because everything else falls to pieces.

It is our recent experience that shapes us to determine how we react. And in other parts of the world they have these problems all the time. Here in Europe, maybe our weather patterns in the last 20 years have not produced those incidents very often. If weather patterns change, and we are starting to see this in the UK – we look at all the wind storms and things which we are having as we speak – I imagine ScottishPower and some utilities in the north are having real problems right now, today, as we are sitting here in the sunshine in London. They are the things that shape our needs as utilities.

Kevin Delaney: Do you think it is a truism that the best thing that ever happens to the PMR industry is a disaster?

Peter Moray: Absolutely!

A black start

Adrian Grilli: We’ve talked about the resilience of the public networks – but what do we mean by resilience? The UK hasn’t got any synchronous links with any other networks. We are an isolated network. So the question was, if the UK network fell over, how long would it take to get it back up again? And after a few years of study, the answer came out: 72 hours to get the grid back up after a ‘black’ start.

How would we do it? We have a black start power station, which would have diesel generation or gas turbine generation to get the main power station back up and then you connect around. So we have this strategy which says if we lost our grid, it would take us 72 hours to get the grid bulk supply points all running.

So the telecoms resilience requirement, as imposed by our Cabinet Office and gradually being rolled out across the network, is 72 hours independence. You’ve got to be able to have visibility – voice comms – for the 72 hours.

Pedro Gama (EDP, Portugal): We are using between 8 to 12 hours. We have also some scenarios and we are looking at eight hours for starting our network from blackout.

The biggest problem is if we start alone when we need to synchronize with Europe, or at least with Spain: we need to shut down everything again and then commence the synchronization.

Adrian Grilli: What’s your experience of the mobile networks in terms of their resilience?

Pedro Gama: It is between 10 minutes and – tops – two hours. If we talk to the public operator, they always say, ‘No, no – our base stations have a lot of resilience and a lot of batteries!’ But that is our experience.

Adrian Grilli: That’s a dialogue we need to establish, because I think we’ve got a more realistic view from some of the mobile operators in the UK. One said to us, ‘We have enough battery resilience to shut down the network in an orderly fashion because if the mobile network crashes, then it’s very difficult get it back up’. If it crashes, it takes them hours or days to get it back up.

The other comment from one of our mobile operators, who shall remain nameless, was that the problem in the UK is that the electricity supply is so reliable that there is no business case for any sort of battery backup!

Peter Moray: Mobile operators use the same standards wherever they are. When they build a new base station, they probably cater for something like three or four hours in battery capability. Of course, they don’t replace the batteries. A battery replacement program is horrendously expensive, so they just leave the battery. So while it has a life of maybe three years, it’s probably been there the seven or eight years, and that’s where the 10 minutes comes from, I suspect.

It’s just that they can’t afford, or they choose not to, have a proper asset replacement program. I get the same message wherever I go.

Endeavours and guarantees

Adrian Grilli: My recollection from quite a few utility presentations is that a GPRS module will cost you €10 a year in terms of the line rental and the data. If you go on to the public safety Tetra, certainly in the UK you are talking about €1000 per year. But it’s resilient.

So you can go to GPRS for €10 – or go to Airwave for €1000. And that’s because one is a resilient and guaranteed service whereas the other is ‘best endeavours’.

What about the other parameters in terms of public networks or telecom networks – latency, access, priority? Do we have any experience of trying to negotiate priority on the public networks?

We’ve done a little work in the UK. We talked to the mobile operators and, unofficially, what some of them say, is: ‘We are quite comfortable with it being a mandated requirement to give the emergency services priority, because then none of our customers could have any issue with us. But there are two things about it if you want to have a negotiated priority. One is, would we lose customers if they think that in a crisis we are going to give priority to the utility and therefore they would be second down the queue’.

That’s a major issue for them, the public perception – and damages if they did give priority to another party and someone who is trying to do a trade in the City loses their deal because they can’t get through. Are they going to face a liability claim for having not provided communications?

Pedro Gama: They could deliver priority if they wanted; but again, commercially, they don’t deliver. I don’t think priority is an issue. The main issue is that when the network goes down, every client goes down. The biggest issue is the resilience of the network and not priority. That is why we didn’t continue giving our biggest effort to having priority on those services.

Adrian Grilli: Security is becoming an issue. The Stuxnet virus has illustrated what can be achieved by getting viruses into the network. In the UK, I’m still not sure how many of our utilities allow Wi-Fi on their laptops. A lot of their laptops don’t have Wi-Fi, they don’t have USB, they are completely locked down and there’s no way you can get any connectivity.

At one UTC conference, I remember someone saying the only way we can meet this standard is to have a private network. As soon as we put it over either the public Internet or the public mobile phone network, then our security is compromised.

And then the other thing, of course, is denial of service.

Alberto Sendín: For me, security is a process. It is an evolutionary process. It’s not going to be achieved in a few days. So we have to understand that there are security levels that would be increasingly placed on the network.

Having said this, I think security is not just related to the system, or to radio or to wire. I think it is a whole concept comprising many things, and there should be a global security strategy to cover different segments, different processes, different systems, different services.

Pedro Gama: We are seeing a trend. Our history: several years ago we had proprietary protocols, we had closed networks. Nowadays, at least for EDP, we are putting the IP almost to the end customer. So, independent of the technology, I will have IP on all my network. IP is a protocol that is known for everybody.

We are also moving to standard protocols and putting a smart meter inside the customer premises, or at least very near. But I don’t know the customer. He could be a hacker, so he has in there an open door to the network. And he has all the time in the world to do some harm.

But again, the cost: putting in a smart meter that has the possibility to encrypt data or has several layers of security will increase the cost. So imagine, in the Portuguese case, if I increase one euro on the meter, I will multiply it by 6·5 million, so it’s €6.5 million. And I do know that it’s not just one euro more.

So am I going to have security on the physical layer or am I going to have security on the application level. I think we are seeing more of the application layer. So even if people can get inside the network, we have the tools to deal with that. I don’t know if putting locks on the door is better than opening the door and saying, OK, you can come in but that door leads nowhere. I don’t know if it is better.

Outsourcing, service provision

Adrian Grilli: We’ve heard a lot about self-provision of networks and we’ve talked a lot about using public networks, but what about service provision in the sense that there is this sort of middle ground?

For example, you can go to a service provider like the national Tetra networks – Airwave in the UK, Tetra Ireland – or even some of the big specialist service providers. The argument was that a lot of these private service provider networks actually came out of the utilities. So one minute it is your telecoms arm; the next minute you sell it to the private sector and it’s a private company but still doing exactly as it did when it was part of your organization. And now, 10 years down the road, they are saying we can provide services to the gas industry and the electricity industry and the police, the emergency services, the finance sector. ‘We don’t do public services, we are a carrier’s carrier for service provision.’

I got the flavour of some of the Commission consultations that that was a way to go: we can concentrate on managing the wires and the pipes and whatever, because that is a utilities expertise, but a utility can’t possibly be an expert in telecoms in the years to come. ‘So put it all out to service provision. Economies of scale, competition in the marketplace – utilities shouldn’t be in telecoms at all.’

Alberto Sendín: You are assuming that telecoms is difficult! Telecoms could be difficult if you are trying to use every case of every technology. If you focus on the technologies you should be using, things are much easier.

Most of the noise that has been generated in the market with outsourcing, or getting help from external companies, has been a movement more coming from the corporate area than the operational arena.

No-one is imagining today that a substation should be operated by some other guy who is not a utility. Why then should telecom services, which are substantial and fundamental for that premise, be operated from some other, external company? I think that fundamental services for fundamental assets should be coming from the company, as long as they are cost-effective. And we should be working in that direction, to make them cost-effective.

Peter Moray: I think the modern view is – if you don’t believe you’ve got the skills and knowledge to run telecoms, then at least control the core assets. Then you can allow someone to run that service for you.

But don’t – and there’s been some classical examples of this which have only just been resolved in the last couple of years – don’t let your core assets be sucked away from you in the world of telecoms, because they very quickly get watered down into a much, much bigger telecommunications business, and you actually lose control of them.

A power glossary

DG Connect: the Directorate General of Communications Networks, Content and Technology of the European Commission (formerly known as DG Infso, the Directorate General Information Society and Media). ec.europa.eu/dgs/connect/

DNO: distribution network operator (UK).

DSO: distribution system operator.

MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) is a protocol-agnostic data-carrying mechanism used in telecommunications networks. An IP/MPLS network is a packet-switched data network that combines the Internet Protocol with the MPLS standard to provide an enhanced quality of service.

Ofgem: the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, a UK regulatory body.

PLC (power line communication) is a method of superimposing data transmission over a cable used for electric power distribution, using a radio-frequency carrier. The technique is used by power distribution operators for their internal telemetry and telecontrol – and, more recently, in the home, for distributing an Internet connection.

PRIME (PoweRline Intelligent Metering Evolution) is a non-proprietary telecommunications architecture supporting smart metering functionalities and progress towards the smart grid. The initiative is led by Iberdrola. Information: http://www.prime-alliance.org

PV panel: a photovoltaic solar energy panel.

Recloser: a protective circuit-breaker which can be reset by an automatic mechanism. Reclosers are widely used in overhead power lines to guard against transient faults, such as when a falling tree-branch briefly short-circuits the line.

Smart grid: an electrical power distribution network which is supported by a data communications network providing distributed monitoring and control, to deliver improved efficiency and reliability.

Scada (supervisory control and data acquisition) is a type of industrial control system which can monitor and control remote plant and equipment automatically. Scada systems, interconnected by wireless or cable links, are widely used in the utility industry.

TSO: transmission system operator.

A trunked grid in London’s streets

An early ‘smart grid’ initiative in the UK was a data-only UHF radio system installed for London Electricity in 1999 to provide remote monitoring and control of its distribution network serving London’s streets. The MPT 1327 trunked PMR equipment was supplied by Key Radio.

“It told you what was happening at 7000 nodes, but you could still get people off-supply”, recalls Adrian Grilli. “That system has now been decommissioned and replaced by a GPRS system. One can ask questions, obviously, about the resilience of that.”

Peter Moray explains that this type of automation scheme is aimed at delivering a quick response when a local power failure occurs. “That incident may cause a power outage for let’s say 500, or several streets”, he says. “The aim of the automation scheme is to reduce the outage time for that group of people. If, by reconfiguring the network, they can get 300 of the 500 back on within a certain time-frame, then those outage times don’t count in the figures they have to supply to the energy regulator. So they are trying to minimize the outage – but only after the incident has occurred. They are being reactive rather than in any way proactive.”


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