Philip Mason explores the use of cutting-edge critical communications in the distribution of electricity, focusing in particular on an ICCA-winning project in Poland.

Critical Communications Week – which took place in November last year – was a first for the industry in many ways. Naturally, there was the ‘virtual’ conference and exhibition, staged in order for the sector to meet and interact at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, however, the event was also the setting for the first-ever online iteration of the International Critical Communications Awards.

While last year’s awards were by necessity much smaller in scale than would usually be the case, the four categories that were included still represented a very decent cross-section of best practice across the sector. They also, for the first time, focused exclusively on specific roll-outs, again spread across a variety of different verticals.

With that in mind, over the next few issues of CCT we are going to focus on some of the winners of last year’s awards, starting with the category of Best Use of Critical Communications in Utilities. This was won by Motorola Solutions, in recognition of its work with Polish energy distributor Energa-Operator, rolling out a new TETRA system.

The second part of the article will drill down even further into the distribution piece, meanwhile, featuring an interview with the Wi-SUN Alliance. The organisation describes itself as delivering “field area network certification to accelerate IoT end device interoperability”, with a huge part of its work taking place in the realm of smart meters.

Continual monitoring

According to figures quoted by Motorola Solutions, Energa-Operator’s electricity distribution network covers almost a quarter of Poland. It provides power to nearly three million private customers, as well as 200,000 businesses.

The operator’s new TETRA system – again, according to Motorola – provides voice communication (naturally enough), while at the same time helping to monitor the distribution network for faults, as part of an integrated SCADA system. To quote a press release regarding the project: “The independent communications network based on the TETRA standard enables Energa-Operator to operate efficiently day-to-day, and even in extreme crisis situations where the continuity of supply is essential.”

Magdalena Potejko-Malicka, director of sales Poland for Motorola Solutions, was at the centre of the roll-out of the Energa system. Discussing the origins of the deployment, and what problems the technology is intended to solve, she says: “The core need on their part was the ability to manage the network in the event of a failure of power.

“They needed to be able to quickly locate and isolate areas of the network where things had potentially gone wrong, in order to be able to attend to the problem immediately. They previously relied on GSM, which while by no means a bad solution was not ideal for the situation in question because it, likewise, would have been affected by the power outage.

“Before the TETRA system was in place, in some circumstances, they would have needed to employ some kind of manual override procedure. Someone would have literally travelled to the affected location, before coming back to the dispatcher to confirm verbally that it needs to be switched off. The disconnection needs to be double- and triple-checked before any of their repair units can be sent out.”

According to Potejko-Malicka, the roll-out consisted of a number of base stations, alongside TETRA modems, connecting to the SCADA switches. At the same time, the new technology also needed to connect with the incumbent dispatcher system, as previously developed with Energa-Operator by a third party.

Needless to say, this all had to be done with absolutely no disruption to business-as-usual operations, in order to avoid – ironically enough – any issues when it came to maintaining a constant supply of energy. As Potejko-Malicka tells it, this essentially meant that delivery had to take place across multiple sites at once, rather than by sub-region.

Going into greater detail about the operation of the technology, she says: “The job of the SCADA system is essentially to provide continual monitoring, with information being sent back and forth via the use of the narrowband short data service [SDS].

“This is now the method through which the regional dispatcher is informed that there might be a problem. At the same time, the dispatcher can also send messages back, again via SDS. This constant status confirmation is crucial to let everyone involved know that, yes, the network is shut down at the appropriate points.”

She continues: “There is obviously also a voice element to the system. Again, they were previously using a mixture of analogue and GSM. In reality, the company was using whatever they could – when they had coverage, the field operatives used cell phones.”

As mentioned, the Energa-Operator roll-out received this year’s ICCA for the best use of critical communications in a utilities environment. That being the case, you can’t help but wonder what raised the deployment above the other candidates. Was this not, after all, just a relatively straight-forward adoption of an already-known-to-be incredibly reliable technology?

One answer to this is likely to have been the scale of the project, as well as the speed at which it was carried out. It probably doesn’t need repeating, but it can’t hurt – the Energa-Operator network covers just under 25 per cent of Poland, a figure which equates to somewhere in the region of 78,000 square kilometres.

The other reason – at least according to Potejko-Malicka – meanwhile, is the scale of innovation which the project brought to the customer itself. And, more to the point, Motorola Solutions’ focus while working with that customer.

Discussing this, she says: “The implementation of the new TETRA system was a huge innovation for Energa-Operator, literally going from analogue to digital. It wasn’t simply an upgrade – it’s enabled an entirely new way of working from their point of view.

“One of the questions I was asked by the jury was the value which we brought to the customer. Energa as a company knows the benefits of TETRA, and they knew exactly what they had before. At the same time, they also know exactly how they want to use it to further improve their operations.”

Two phases

Broadly speaking, there are two phases when it comes to the distribution of electricity. The first involves the infrastructure which we have just been discussing, otherwise known as the ‘transmission grid’. This is the environment through which power is transported from a generating site (ie, power stations, renewables, etc) to a substation, primarily via the use of overhead wires and underground cables.

The second phase, meanwhile, is known as ‘electric power distribution’, which ultimately delivers the product to the consumer. Without wanting to simplify the process to the point of absurdity, this involves the use of what are known as ‘distribution transformers’, whose job it is to lower the voltage to the point where the electricity can be harnessed in a private or business setting. The final link in the chain are the electronic user devices themselves, alongside the meters through which the aforesaid usage is measured.

Remaining on the latter devices, metering is also a field that is seeing major changes when it comes to the use of technology. Whereas the distribution companies are continuing to fully embrace TETRA, however, use-measurement is becoming increasingly broadband-focused.

One organisation at the heart of this is the Wi-SUN Alliance, which was formed in 2011 to – according to its website – “drive the adoption of interoperable smart utility networks, as described by IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] 802.15.4g”.

Promoting and certifying wireless field area network technology, its members include the likes of Cisco, Itron, Landis+Gyr and Toshiba.

Discussing the benefits of smart metering compared with its electromechanical equivalent, Wi-SUN Alliance president/CEO Phil Beecher says: “In terms of benefits, the main advantage – to both the consumer and the power companies – is automation. Whereas previous iterations of the technology had to be ‘read’ manually, smart meters provide a constant flow of usage and other measurement information taking place in real time.

“From the point of view of the providers in particular, that means increased efficiency and accuracy when it comes to things like outage management, voltage adjustment, monitoring energy theft and so on. They also make it easier to manage power from renewables, which can cause problems when it comes to grid stability. If the wind drops, suddenly you’ve potentially lost a gigawatt of power.”

Going back to the subject of voltage adjustment in particular, Beecher elaborates by discussing the basics of the process of supplying power, something which has traditionally involved a certain amount of ‘losses’.

“A large amount of loss has always taken place on the distribution network,” he says, “due to there being a minimum voltage required at the customer premises. To achieve this, the distribution networks tend to run ‘over’ voltage, so that by the time it’s gone through all the losses, the amount required by the user is still guaranteed. That extra voltage accounts for quite a significant energy loss.

“If you can measure the voltage at every meter coming from a substation, you can deliver just the right amount of voltage and reduce your losses. This is one of the things which smart metering enables us to do.”

As discussed, as an organisation, Wi-SUN Alliance is primarily focused on questions of standardisation. At the time of writing, it boasts a membership of 250 companies, and has certified more than 200 products ranging from network nodes to IP network bridges.

According to Beecher, this is important for any number of reasons, many of which won’t exactly be unfamiliar to regular readers of Critical Communications Today. These include the need to ensure interoperability, while at the same time avoiding the kind of vendor lock-in which not only stifles innovation but also the marketplace itself.

On the current situation around the world and the influence of the Wi-SUN certification programme, Beecher says: “There’s a huge drive in South America now, as well as across Asia, as evidenced by the work of the Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO]. They have a rolling programme of something like 30 million smart meters now, about 95 per cent of which are on a Wi-SUN capable wireless mesh network [rather than consumer broadband].

“There’s also some fantastic work going on in the US. The initial drive for Wi-SUN was actually in relation to Pacific Gas and Electric, and Florida Power and Light, both of whom were convinced by the technology at an early stage. They’d already invested in wireless mesh from a Silicon Valley start-up, but were concerned that they were going to get stuck if the company disappeared or stopped producing.”

This last point leads very neatly to the subject of vendor lock-in, something which Beecher claims has bedevilled the industry in the past. He illustrates this once again by bringing in the example of Japan which, prior to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, saw the major utilities companies apparently using preferred suppliers, offering proprietary technology.

On this, he says: “After Fukushima, the Japanese government began to insist that power companies needed to introduce energy conservation programmes, using equipment based on open standards, while at the same time putting out open tenders.

“What we’re seeing now is these companies starting to deploy a mixture of different technologies. This has in turn seen a positive reaction from the likes of [meter and software manufacturers] Itron, and Landis+Gyr, which have started their own partner programmes.”

The efficient – uninterrupted – distribution of energy is crucial for the continued functioning of society at all levels. Communications technology is playing an increasingly integral part in the process at every point.

Author: Philip Mason