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Smart Grid and broadband

Fri, 04/09/2010 - 10:30am
Brian Santo

The premise behind the Smart Grid concept is that power consumption can be monitored, managed and controlled. In other words, the energy network should be a two-way network. In other other words, the power network is going to act like a communications network.

It would seem like a natural fit for communications service providers (CSPs), but it hasn’t developed that way, even though the FCC’s National Broadband Plan envisions a bridge to the Smart Grid program.

The Smart Grid notion is being driven by energy companies (utilities and their vendors) and auto companies, which through their hybrids and electric vehicles will be extremely invested in the state of the energy grid.

But there are indications that CSPs should be involved. GE Energy, for example, just announced a pilot program that uses WiMAX to poll smart meters. Indeed, when the FCC considers linking the National Broadband Plan to the Smart Grid program, it leans toward 3G wireless networks, which it says already cover 97.8 percent of Americans.

If utilities are going to need to poll their meters, and if they’ll consider using wireless backhaul, there’s no obvious reason why the meters couldn’t also make use of the fixed-wire broadband connections that already exist in millions of consumers’ homes.

The conversation simply hasn’t gotten that far yet, though.

The IEEE just announced its first Smart Grid Communications Conference, which is going to be held in October. Of the dozen or so proposed topics, only two seem to be directly on the communications topic – though perhaps it’s encouraging the word “communications” is in the title of the conference.

Even so, those two-of-twelve topics indicate that Smart Grid mavens are already considering how the Smart Grid might reach into the home and how the Smart Grid will take advantage of IP.

The list of topics for the conference are available online.

While a lot of Smart Grid discussions center on power meters and cars and appliances, such as washers and refrigerators, by some estimates consumer electronics (CE) represent up to half of the power consumption in consumers’ homes, and they might end up interfacing with the Smart Grid, too. So that’s stereo systems, PCs, TVs, set-top boxes, routers. …

Monitoring, managing and controlling products such as these clearly overlap the interests of CSPs.

GE Energy’s smart grid/WiMAX pilot is with Consumer’s Energy, a utility in Michigan. The collected data, when coupled with back office distribution management systems, should give network managers and utility information systems an accurate picture of grid operating status, which should help identify problems such as outages before they occur and enable quicker response when they do happen.

Mark Hura is GE’s Smart Grid commercial leader. He explained that with real-time data, utilities should be able to monitor their networks better, help manage loads better, and eventually provide services such as notifying consumers when it might be to their advantage to wait until electricity costs, which vary during the day, come down before turning on an appliance such as a washer.

“We have smart appliances today that can react to data from utilities – dishwashers, washers, refrigerators – those things exist today,” Hura said.

The current need for bandwidth in a Smart Grid is actually fairly modest – WiMAX might be a bit of overkill.

Hura estimated that smart appliances’ requirements for bandwidth might be in the range of kilobits to megabits. That said, there’s not telling how the market might develop.

Hura believes that if CSPs want to get more involved with the Smart Grid trend, they’d already be late to the party. He suggested that CSPs would have to educate themselves on utilities’ data requirements, and then put together business plans. “Otherwise utilities are going to do all of this on their own,” he said.

The 1st IEEE International Conference on Smart Grid Communications is scheduled for October 4-6 in Gaithersburg, Md.

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