New Demands, New Technologies, New Partnership

Utilities have been dared to radically change the power-delivery business, and they have taken that challenge. Smart grid deployments are modernizing the century-old electric grid. This incredible undertaking requires the electric utility and information and communication technologies (ICT) industries to work together like never before.

The International Engineering Consortium (IEC) conceived the Grid ComForum conference series to enhance this relationship. Now we are particularly excited about IEC sponsoring this T&D World supplement, which provides a snapshot of key utility strategy issues, what utilities are experiencing in smart grid deployment and how the smart grid ICT market is shaking out.

From the ICT industry viewpoint, the electric utility industry offers diverse and sustainable growth opportunities. Utilities have spent more than US$3 billion annually on telecommunications equipment and services during the last two years, an increase of 21% over 2009 levels. These expenditures are expected to approximately double by 2016, primarily in support of the 65 million smart meters expected to be deployed by 2020. That is good news to the U.S. ICT industry.

Smart meters are only part of the big picture. Experts increasingly agree the biggest benefits of the smart grid will come from improved operations on the utility side and will require a utility-wide, nearly seamless communications platform. As a first step toward this goal, most utilities are deploying advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to transport latency-tolerant, low-bandwidth metering data.

By regulation, the service usually must be offered to every utility customer. That in itself presents a big problem, because no single communications technology solution works everywhere, so choosing the right mix of technologies for AMI alone is daunting. An even bigger challenge is to construct an enterprisewide communications platform so that it also provides high-speed, mission-critical data for grid monitoring and control.

And that is the ICT challenge: The communications platform, which can be made up of many different networks and technologies, is being asked to provide large quantities of latency-tolerant meter data, while being available to reliably send unpredictable high-speed bursts of emergency-grid control data.

Fortunately, this challenge comes at a time when the telecommunications industry is sorting through and focusing on technologies that are adaptable to a wider range of applications. These developments, such as long-term evolution, also are expected to have a longer life cycle more fitting to the investment cycles and support needs of utilities.

On the other hand, this is déjà vu for electric utilities. U.S. utilities have been building large, integrated systems of generation and electric grids since the early 1900s. They have built in extra capacity in the face of rapid and uncertain load growth as well as high reliability standards. They have charted their way through regulatory spasms and stayed afloat financially while continuing to keep rates low compared to other nations with similar-quality power. As a result, the electric utility industry has enabled the United States to achieve world leadership in economic and industrial growth for over a century.

Now, utilities are using their system design, construction and management skills to build communications platforms to support the smart grid. Not that communications are anything new; utilities already have a combined communications network in North America second in size only to the telecommunications industry.

Nonetheless, utilities are dependent on the ICT industry to get the smart grid done right for the lowest cost. Although the more operationally critical networks will, in many cases, be owned by the utility, backhaul services leased from public carriers will be required to pipeline enormous amounts of metering data to central facilities. Of course, utility-specialized carriers will continue to offer diverse and improved schemes for meter communications.

The bottom line is the utility and ICT industries have opportunities to benefit each other. They have the obligation to work together for the common good of the nation. And the growth of smart grid deployments over the last several years has shown they play together quite well, indeed.

John R. Janowiak is president of the International Engineering Consortium. With more than 25 years of experience, he leads a team that helps catalyze progress in the global information industry through educational conferences and exhibitions. Janowiak is responsible for IEC's business and market development activities. He is active with and serves as IEC's principal liaison to many information industry corporations and non-profit organizations. He also guides the IEC's university relations and serves as executive director of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association.

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