Smarter Grids

Smart Grids to ‘Smarter’ Grids – The Future of Power Systems with Unified Critical Communications

3 March 2022, EPR Magazine, Mr. Shriprakash R. Pandey, CMD, Commtel Networks: One may have heard of the Smart Grid in the news, but unless you are from the utility industry, you may perhaps know what a grid is, but possibly not a smart grid. A grid refers to the electric grid, a marvel of technology – the vast network of transmission lines that one sees alongside roads and the substations, transformers, and everything else that helps deliver electricity from the power plant to your home or business. 

However, there is now a need for a new kind of electric grid that is responsive, efficient, and future-proofed. One that automates and manages the increasing demand, complexity, and electricity requirements over the next few decades. Unlike traditional electric power grids that have a one-way electricity flow, the smart grids allow two-way electricity and information flow between generating stations, transmission grids, load dispatch centres, substations, and consumers. Smart grids, the updated version of traditional ‘dumb’ energy infrastructure, are essential for the concept of sustainable future cities. 

Communications were always a vital part of the transmission grids. It empowered safety, automation, and efficiency in traditional power grids. With the advent of smart grids, the communications footprint expanded to generation and distribution portions encompassing entire power industry operations. Pioneer smart-grid technologies enabled us to improve the performance of distribution networks using smart metering and increased efficiency of the power grids by automating real-time load demand-supply to the area-level substations. Over the years, Commtel has deployed various communication technologies for national power grids and citywide distribution networks to support operations, security, and safety of the smart grids. 

The energy landscape will change considerably in the next decade compared to its transition through the earlier century. With the emphasis on renewables and decarbonization to ensure sustainability, the grids will have to get smarter at the edge, right at the consumer premises. The way forward is to harness the advances in edge intelligence and data analytics. With the advanced control systems and the explosion of data powered through IIoT sensors deployed at every level from the generating stations to consumer meters, smart grids are ready to be ‘smarter’ to deliver next-level performance, efficiency, sustainability, and energy security. 

New communication solutions are required that keep pace with the demands of the new smarter grids by incorporating cutting-edge developments in information and communication technologies and merging them with both the legacy power infrastructure and the latest advances. Future power grids will evolve into complex cyber-physical systems where the digital and the physical will intertwine seamlessly. The importance of the information and communication network is far higher and more critical than in the traditional power grids, and it is, for this reason, we call our solution ‘Unified Critical Communications’.            

The convergence of the electricity flow with the information flow is at the heart of the smart grid. By integrating Unified Critical Communications (UCC) into power systems, the grids can become “smarter” with enhanced sensing, control, and communication capabilities. For one, the UCC can help generate, collect, analyze, and react to humongous data about the robustness of the electrical grid than before. The Unified Communications span from ultra-mega traditional power plants to thousands of smart homes with low-capacity renewable energy units. The smarter grids of the future will merge the non-renewable and renewable energy sources to provide granular control over demand and supply, thus reducing energy losses and improving efficiency, translating into greater sustainability. 

Our vision of UCC is to unify the underlying communication systems by leveraging data that flows through the various channels and enabling and providing smarter, efficient, fault-tolerant, and real-time collaboration among machines and the different stakeholders. Unified Critical Communications enhances the key smart-grid concept of two-way energy exchange and communications. It provides a unified data plane across the power system layers, communicating through myriads of communication technologies and protocols. It provides a smooth interface and tight integration between the communication layers at every level of the power system and ensures the data availability to critical power automation, decision-making, and control functions in real-time, ensuring the two-way energy exchange. Unified Critical Communications for the smart grids can be seen as a ‘network-of-networks’, catering to the future smart power grids, that are themselves system-of-systems.

In a smarter grid, the individual system nodes are set up in distinct environments and have specific performance requirements based on their criticality to the overall system. Unified Critical Communications and its inherent ability to transport and transform large-scale data in various forms and formats allow utilizing each sensor and monitorable parameter across millions of disparate components, thus permitting unprecedented visibility and insights into the system operations. Unified Critical Communications allow overhauling of the traditional, scheduled, and reactive O&M procedures to data-driven proactive and predictive procedures to ensure system availability, lowering maintenance costs, extending the system life, improving efficiency, and ultimately, sustainability.

Unified Critical Communications ensures the end-to-end data flow, and it does so securely. By incorporating and integrating with cutting-edge cyber-security platforms alongside its inherent data analytics capabilities, UCC provides novel ways to deal with present-day cyber threats facing industrial networks.      

Our UCC offering, CN-SHIELD, is an artificial intelligence software solution that unifies the communication platforms across layers, monitors, assesses the data, and implements faster and cohesive 360-degree protection. By using Unified Critical Communications, a smart grid becomes smarter, highly reliable, and flexible. The enhanced communication infrastructure helps real-time information interaction, reliable asset supervision, and load management. With smarter grids, we will soon see more innovative energy services such as peer-to-peer electricity trading, consumers or consumer groups with captive renewables participating in energy and carbon-credit exchanges, and so on. Smarter grids are the answer to the future. But to make a smart grid smarter, Unified Critical Communications is not a choice, but an imperative. 

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