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Grid Modernization Will Require Active, Holistic Network Management

Mark Burke on June 21, 2019 - in Articles, Feature, Featured

As concerns about aging infrastructure in the electric industry fester, the promise of grid modernization is gaining increasing sway as power suppliers pursue optimized uptime and resilience while satisfying consumer cravings for lowered carbon footprints.

Utility business models are changing to accommodate growing volumes of renewable energy coming onto the grid. New services are being demanded by customers, and new and divergent forms of energy are testing the flexibility and capacity of their networks. Smart devices and powerful, cloud-based computing also are creating and moving data in staggering speeds and amounts, much of it offering insights about consumption habits and system health.

While creating numerous new pathways for cyber vulnerability, unfortunately, the industry’s migration toward broader use of data is propelling the adoption of powerful new software that collects this actionable information, giving managers an unprecedented tool to plan for tomorrow’s energy needs. Grid modernization efforts such as deploying smart devices, predictive analytics and active network management strategies can overcome the pitfalls of aging infrastructure. Along the way, such modernization also can meet rising customer demand for reliability and green energy amid nagging concerns about climate change.

Unprecedented Data

As utility operators seek better understanding of information flowing on their networks and how to leverage it for reliability, security and economic benefits, data are driving that discussion. Integrated smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) offer the promise of near-real-time knowledge of the energy delivery system and heuristics for forecasting potential vulnerabilities to prevent outages and mitigate those that occur. With applications behind the meter, as well as down the full energy-delivery chain, network intelligence strategies involving advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution automation (DA), substation automation (SA) and other technologies carry the challenge of unprecedented volumes of data about system state, asset health, customer habits and potential cyber anomalies.

Utilities eager to capture, manage and exploit automation are adopting telecommunications infrastructure to effectively enable smart devices and automation systems, which often include multiple communications networks of diverse technologies and lineage. All of this must be done while utilities face headcount and budget constraints demanding them to accomplish more with fewer resources.

Yet despite the clear, redeeming advantages of grid modernization, it’s arguable whether utilities are ready to manage and capitalize on these burgeoning connections and data flows. Maintaining the design and deployment of multiple networks—each containing thousands to millions of devices and information capture points—often can fall outside a utility’s skills wheelhouse, priorities or resources, even when they know it’s necessary.

Few scenarios encapsulate the conundrum better than smart devices. Various communication networks of differing technologies are employed by devices to communicate with each other, from access and transport networks including radio frequency (RF) mesh and point-to-point wireless to fiber, microwave and commercial cellular. Bringing these networks together into an end-to-end network is an integration puzzle; but a necessary one, given that reliable communications among these often-disparate devices is crucial to their reliability.

Integrated Systems

The approach taken by leading utilities is the adoption of an Integrated Network Management System (INMS), serving as a “manager of managers” and allowing a single, end-to-end vision of all the devices and services being delivered by the network. It provides network surveillance, provisioning, security monitoring and controls—not to mention the ability to leverage telecom automating to continually learn and improve performance. An INMS often is housed in a network operations center (NOC).

Resource limitations spur utilities to reach out to outside expert firms who efficiently can assist the utility in developing an appropriate INMS and offer supplemental or primary support—frequently known as managed network services (MNS)—for network operations. Utilities are increasingly leveraging experts among MNS providers because they bring dedicated staff and deep experience at a much lower incremental cost compared to what’s required to invest in, train and maintain a dedicated inhouse network management group as utilities expand their telecommunications footprint.

Nearly eight of every 10 respondents to the survey for Black & Veatch’s recent “2019 Strategic Directions: Smart Utilities Report” (pages.bv.com/SDR-SmartUtilities-Download.html) said they expect their telecommunications programs to grow over the next five years to a decade and are actively planning for that shift. An additional 16 percent anticipate change but haven’t begun planning.

The following are some of the factors fueling the move toward outsourced, holistic network management:

Proven efficiencies of moving from more-traditional internet protocol (IP) routing to multi-protocol label switching (MPLS): In conventional IP routing, the next move of a packet is determined by a router, which inspects the packet’s destination IP address—a time-consuming process drawing heavily on hardware resources and ultimately leading to diminished performance. Under MPLS, the first router can determine a packet’s entire journey at the outset, resulting in a quicker path and a smoother draw on resources.

But as reliance grows on smart devices that employ MPLS, many utilities simultaneously struggle with staffing limitations, limited skill sets or workforce attrition. The utilities’ challenge often is compounded by the devices themselves as many network-analysis tools have varying and proprietary graphical user interfaces, operational procedures and training requirements. The deployment of massive numbers of devices has utilities wondering whether their communications applications can keep up.

Network security requirements are growing continuously: Utilities recognize the critical role that cybersecurity plays in ensuring the future health, reliability and resilience of the electric supply. Respondents to Black & Veatch’s survey continue to name cybersecurity among the driving forces behind modernization efforts. But the distributed nature of these projects—from the multiple site types to the sheer volume of low-impact field devices and distributed geographical nature of utility assets—raises the challenge of shutting the doors on hackers.

The mandate for a central view of the whole network: Competing time and resource demands constrain the ability of utility managers to manage their networks, such as accommodating multi-vendor, multi-technology environments; and supporting end-to-end circuits, service provisioning, and performance monitoring and asset management.

Extreme weather: Today’s systems face seemingly constant assaults, and while the challenges presented by modernization play a large role in those conflicts, so does extreme weather. A recent report by Utility Dive about the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis of outage reports suggests “stability may be more tied to weather and climate than modernization.” The EIA found that the average duration of electric power outages nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017. The EIA blamed major storms.

Without question, smart grids will require active network management, given the grid’s increasing interconnectedness. Actively managing millions of devices—many of them tied to varying transports with varying UIs and protocols—is the challenge.

The solution lies in choosing a trusted adviser with deep expertise in network management services to give utilities peace of mind that this transformative approach to smarter networks will be seamless, secure and worth the near-term and long-term investment that grid modernization is going to demand, including the integration of third-party devices. Cybersecurity will continue to be an evolving, more-demanding concern.

Typical siloed operations and IT are breaking down, so utilities can and should take advantage of holistic ways of total system management and leveraging the wealth of customer and system data. That will take a new way of working—including revamped organizational structures—and, perhaps most importantly, new ways of thinking.


About Mark Burke

Mark Burke specializes in private networks organization for Black & Veatch’s Telecommunications business; email: [email protected].

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