Navigant Research Blog

New Relay Technology Is Transforming the Grid

— December 9, 2014

A major transformation is occurring in the electric transmission industry, as new digital technologies, high-speed communications, and big data analytics are being deployed to improve transmission grid reliability and resiliency.  This transformation starts at the basic level of protective relays – technology that has been utilized on the transmission grid for years.  These devices are beginning to evolve from mechanical and solid-state relays to next-generation digital relays that perform all of the standard system protection functions, they but also have new digital capabilities for phasor measurement units (PMUs), data collection, and synchrophasor analysis that are largely untapped in today’s transmission utility market.

My conversations with major vendors, such as Schweitzer Engineering Labs (SEL), Alstom Grid, ABB, and General Electric (GE), as well as major utilities, indicate that the new technologies will change the way transmission operators detect and respond to transmission system disturbances and outages.  Now that network operators have the ability to detect sub-second disturbances in phase angle and voltage (which lead to outages and other reliability issues), with data coming in 30 to 60 times per second, a new major market for smart grid data analytics, visualization tools for the operations center, and communications is opening up.  Recent information on the nine U.S. Department of Energy smart grid demonstration projects in the United States, funded by stimulus grants, suggests that utilities are in the early stages of deploying these technologies, and that next-generation synchrophasor analytics, high-speed fiber communications systems, and high-speed sub-second automation solutions are in the early stages of adoption, at best.

Current Locations of PMUs on North American Power Grid 

(Source: North American SynchroPhasor Initiative)

In mid-October, I attended the 46th Western Protective Relay Conference (WPRC) in Spokane, Washington.  Along the Spokane River, salmon were rising in the afternoon to a late season fly hatch.  I’ll have to admit that I had not expected a conference featuring three days of technical papers that included some true power engineering discussions of second derivatives, Fourier transforms, phasor analysis, and phase angle diagrams, plus a couple of presentations on the use of comparative synchrophasor analysis for management of the transmission grid.  The 500-plus attendees included a mixture of vendors, experienced transmission planners and engineers, and a large number of new transmission engineers and trainees that were attending to learn from the experts from across the industry.

As advanced digital protective relays are deployed across the grid, consumers will benefit from improved reliability and grid resiliency.  Transmission utilities will also benefit, as they look to these lower-cost systems to add additional synchrophasor coverage and capabilities at a much lower cost.

 

Utilities Warm to Cloud-Based Smart Grid Analytics

— August 5, 2014

Managed services for smart grid applications — also known as smart grid as a service (SGaaS) — haven’t exactly lit a fire under utility executives.  Despite the numerous advantages to outsourcing non-core activities like communications, software applications, monitoring, etc., many large utilities, citing security, control, and economics, prefer to keep these functions in-house.

But as smart grid deployments extend beyond the largest utilities, it seems likely that organizations constrained by finances or personnel will be obliged to consider the SGaaS model if they want to take full advantage of smart grid technology.

Vendors are repackaging their solutions in a spectrum of managed offerings, from hosted to managed to full business process outsourcing.  And cloud service providers, including Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, are actively courting utilities’ business.

On July 14, Itron announced that it has selected Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform for its managed Itron Analytics solution.  Microsoft Azure will maintain the infrastructure, allowing Itron and its customers to focus on the analytics.  Itron says its analytics solutions can be installed locally, run by the utility in the cloud, or operated and managed as part of Itron’s Total Services.

The Whole Enchilada

Itron’s Total Services boxes up the metering, communications, and meter data management, along with analytics, in a fully managed offering.  In other words, Itron will not only turn the knobs, but will also respond to the information coming in.  Texas New Mexico Power (TNMP) in Lewisville, Texas engaged Itron to provide meter data analytics for its 230,000 meters earlier this year.

TNMP told me that “a smart meter can trigger hundreds of alarms; our staff may not have the expertise to best respond, whereas Itron’s analysts do have that proficiency.”  TNMP is also working with ABB’s Ventyx unit for an outage management system (OMS) that will be hosted and administered by Ventyx.

Hefty Growth Ahead

Navigant Research’s report, Smart Grid as a Service, forecasts that the SGaaS market will grow strongly over the next decade.  Our forecast includes a host of managed services for utilities, including home energy management, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution and substation automation communications, asset management and condition monitoring, demand response, and software solutions and analytics.  We expect to see a $1.7 billion market in 2014 growing to more than $11 billion in 2023.  Software solutions and analytics sold under a software as a service (SaaS) model are the largest category of SGaaS spending today, followed by AMI managed services.

Annual SGaaS Revenue by Category, World Markets: 2014-2023

 

(Source: Navigant Research)

Challenges to the model do remain, however.  Most notably, the rate of return model that most investor-owned utilities work under encourages them to make their own capital and personnel investments.  But for smaller utilities (e.g., cooperatives and municipals here in the United States), the speed with which solutions can be deployed, and the absence of large upfront investment, will be attractive.

 

With Thread, Nest Targets Wireless Energy Devices

— July 29, 2014

It’s been a busy year for Palo Alto, California-based Nest.  In January, the firm was acquired by Google.  Last month, Nest announced that it would acquire Dropcam, which offers a Wi-Fi-enabled portable camera that pairs with a cloud-based video monitoring service.  Days later, the company launched the Nest Developer Program, enrolling early partners Mercedes-Benz, LIFX, Whirlpool, and Jawbone.

More recently, Nest introduced Thread, a personal area network (PAN) specification for device interconnectivity.  This specification will be regulated by the Thread Group, of which Chris Boross of Nest will be president.  Competing with other wireless specifications such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth Smart, Thread is a low-power mesh-based solution that follows the IEEE 802.15.4 and IPv6 standards.

Much of the coverage (see here and here) of the Nest/Thread announcement has asked whether we really need another standard for networking in-home devices.  Thread, though, has some advantages over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  Wi-Fi uses a lot of power, which makes it impractical for low-power battery-operated devices such as thermostats or smoke alarms.  Bluetooth Smart is already installed in most smartphones and is low power, but its range is limited.  ZigBee has encountered problems with vendors making proprietary adjustments to the specification, making it impossible or very difficult for devices to interoperate.

Looking for Options

The burgeoning number of entrants in the networking protocol space signals increased competition and perceived high value to be found in the market for connected devices.  For retail consumers, this means better products at lower prices that are easier to integrate into their connected life schema.

Unfortunately, for utilities looking to integrate energy-saving devices such as smart thermostats and lighting controls into their energy efficiency and demand response programs, multiple network protocol alliances present problems.  In order to implement these programs, utilities are subject to numerous technology restrictions and standards from state public utilities commissions or regional independent system operators.  OpenADR and ZigBee Smart Energy Profile are among these standards, and the further that protocol competition pushes the retail device market away from these, the narrower the options will be for utilities.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has engaged in extensive research on different models of smart thermostats, hoping to identify those that are easy to use and will yield a stronger customer experience (as well as meet energy efficiency and curtailment goals).  However, any model that the utility looks at is subject to a number of technical requirements.  Since these are set by regulating bodies, it’s unlikely that requirements will remain in stride with developments driven in the commercial market.  As it is, the economics of utility deployments are not always favorable to vendors, particularly in programs where more than one thermostat option is offered and sales volumes are uncertain.  It remains to be seen whether vendors will offer devices and platforms that can be used by the organizations that will require them to meet energy efficiency directives and load curtailment needs.

 

Emerging Broadband Technology Offers New Connectivity for Utilities

— July 15, 2014

In the battle for smart grid communications standards, yet another contender is now on the horizon, promising ultra fast data speeds over existing copper wires.  And while telephone companies (telcos) are the primary target market for the G.Fast standard, chipset developer Sckipio believes that the standard will be attractive to utilities for smart grid applications, in addition to broadband connectivity and over-the-top applications like video.

Designed to help telcos cost-effectively compete with cable broadband and very expensive fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity, G.Fast employs vectoring technology to eliminate interference (cross-talk) between multiple wire pairs in a single copper cable.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) instituted the standard in 2010, and recent field trials have shown promising results.

Belgacom has trialed the standard with 3,000 customers and reported a nearly four-fold increase in access speeds over copper.  This makes the technology a reasonable alternative to FTTH, particularly in urban areas with extensive copper infrastructure already in place.  In multi-dwelling units with extensive in-wall phone lines, the use of existing copper lines represents enormous cost-saving, as well as a speed-to-market advantage over running new fiber.

Coming Soon

G.fast is designed for use in the last-mile – in practice, over distances of less than 250 meters.  This allows fiber to reach as far as the basement of an apartment block, for example, eliminating the need to rewire the whole building and still allowing a notable acceleration in access speeds.  G.fast requires a short loop (less than 250 meters) and operates at higher frequencies than digital subscriber line transmissions, which also run over existing copper wires, increasing the risk of cross-talk unless the new vectoring technology is employed.

Sckipio says it has seen interest in Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific, and expects to see telco deployment begin in earnest in 2015.

Tel Aviv, Israel-based Sckipio was founded in 2012, and in December 2013 announced a $10 million venture capital round with Gemini Israel Ventures, Genesis Partners, Amiti Capital, and Aviv Ventures.  The company  is building ultra high-speed G.fast broadband modem semiconductors.

The G.fast standard is still working its way through ITU approval, and a few technical hurdles remain:  Powering the equipment and the unbundling of sub-loops is something that different countries are treating differently.

G.fast represents a great leap forward for telcos struggling with legacy copper networks.  As a viable alternative for utilities seeking connectivity for smart grid applications, it is likely still a couple of years out.  Given its very high data transfer speeds, however, it may well present a new alternative for utilities needing visibility and control at the grid edge — while also providing telephone companies with an opportunity to ramp up their business in the utility/smart grid vertical.

 

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