The New Networking Requirements for the Smart Grid

Modernization of the electric power grid will require a wholesale improvement on today's legacy infrastructure in terms of performance, openness, security, and cost effectiveness

By: Eric Toperzer, Juniper Networks

Without the electrical grid, business systems would fail; public, civil, and national defense systems would be compromised; and a country’s citizens would be thrown into chaos—unable to contact loved ones, communicate with the world around them, or use countless modern conveniences. The electrical grid is, quite possibly, the most important component of foundational infrastructure in our modern life.

However, the health, scalability, and vitality of the electrical grid are all threatened by demand growth, domestic and international terrorism, closed/proprietary systems, and the economic and social cost of energy. To help meet these challenges, governments and energy companies are now investing significant time and resources into “smart grid” network technology.

Modernization of the electric power grid is rapidly evolving. The increasing pace of progress is as dramatic as the birth and proliferation of the Internet over the past fifteen years. The smart grid has the potential to affect the world economy and global climate in ways that cannot even be imagined.

When comparing the concepts and objectives underpinning the smart grid and the Internet, the similarities are striking. Both are capable of generation, transmission, and distribution—the smart grid for power, the Internet for content. Both networks are comprised of autonomous systems, with generation facilities (in the case of the Internet, data centers) delivering ubiquitous services in response to unceasing customer demands that vary by time of day and geography.

What can we learn from the transformation of the Internet, and how can we apply that to the systematic changes being driven by smart grid technologies? What insights are to be gleaned for how to better manage the evolution of an electric utility’s communications networks?

The smart grid—what is changing?

The technology advances in the energy grid are being driven by four interrelated functions: power generation, monitoring, control, and applications.

First, power generation is moving from large, centralized generation facilities to distributed sources of renewable energy that include the newest-generation photovoltaic panels and wind farms. Another emerging trend involves moving energy closer to the point of consumption through the use of fuel cells, to enable more efficient power distribution by the reduction of power loss in transmission.

In order to better understand what is happening in the electrical grid, we next need to look at the monumental change in the level and sophistication of monitoring. There is a dramatic increase in the number of devices being monitored, the frequency of monitoring, and the amount of detailed data being monitored. For example, if a utility rolls out an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and changes readings from monthly intervals to ten-minute intervals, this will increase the frequency of meter readings by a factor of about 4,320 (6 x 24 x 30 = 4,320). Enhancing meter readings to include voltage (minimum and maximum), instantaneous current, and aggregate power data, the amount of information then balloons, with the number of data records increasing 17,280 times. This requires utilities to capture and store quantities of information that are orders of magnitude greater than they typically have stored in the past.

The dramatic growth in the number of network monitoring points goes far beyond AMI, extending to transmission and distribution substation equipment such as transformers, switched capacitors, and syncro-phasors. Monitoring these devices provides visibility into system status, equipment condition, and real-time control—helping to optimize the network, reduce power loss, and provide better control for fault isolation. The sheer number of devices combined with the amount of monitored information is driving an exponential growth in the volumes of data generated.

As power generation moves closer to the point of consumption, traditional, centralized, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems for generation, transmission, and distribution become less effective, opening the door for micro-grid technology. Distributed intelligence within autonomous systems is required to deliver effective demand response based on local power generation.

The SCADA applications used to monitor the smart grid infrastructure are supporting new capabilities enabled by digital measurement and bidirectional, real-time control. Standardization in the industry will foster innovation, much as it has with the Internet, as utilities abandon proprietary systems and move to open systems based on Internet protocols.

The new networking requirements

The smart grid communication network’s purpose is to support an electric utility’s objectives ranging from demand response programs, distribution automation, and the prevention of power outages with improved power grid reliability, fault detection, and isolation. From a technical perspective, it is to enable a closed-loop, real-time control system.

The new networks enabling the smart grid will need to provide a wholesale improvement on today’s legacy infrastructure in terms of performance, openness, security, and cost effectiveness.

High Performance

Performance can be further defined as cost-effective performance at scale. Smart grid networks will be faced with the challenges of massive session scalability and broad geographic reach as they connect hundreds of millions of end-points. Smart grid networks will need to support expanded reach and breadth of real-time SCADA applications. A utility’s mission-critical communications networks must be fault-tolerant and self-healing to provide unmatched system level reliability in a cost-effective manner.

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