Extending the reach of communications on the grid

Block-Utilities (T3ImageBlock)

Energy utilities in the US and elsewhere are developing ‘smart’ electricity grids that will facilitate greater control over energy consumption and costs. The US Department of Energy has stated that one of the “key technology areas of the Smart Grid is integrated two-way communications, which make the Smart Grid a dynamic, interactive, real-time infrastructure.” A range of interoperable communications will be required to make this type of system viable, including fixed-line terrestrial links and wireless networks such as cellular and WiMax.

There is a compelling case for including Inmarsat services in this mix of essential communications for future Smart Grid deployments. The Inmarsat network is grounded in IP, which the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has already acknowledged will be an important Smart Grid technology. Its flexible services are secure, reliable and continuously available, meeting other key criteria for utilities. The followingsections describe how Inmarsat services can support a utiliy’s daily operations and further deployment of Smart Grid applications.


Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI)

Smart Grids require ‘smart meters’ to help consumers manage their energy consumption. These devices are a key element of AMI and typically sit within wireless mesh grids, collecting usage data from consumers in a limited geographical area, transmitting it back to the utility’s data center – usually via a fixed link or cellular network. However, cellular networks are not always ideal for data backhaul for several reasons, including limited range, restricted bandwidth, a tendency to congestion, and vulnerability to natural and other disasters. There are also many geographic areas where cellular coverage does not reach, and maybe never will. BGAN offers a high-quality, low-cost alternative to backhaul usage data from wireless collector points for AMI deployments. BGAN provides ubiquitous, global coverage, and – as it is a secure network and does not traverse the internet or other public networks – is not susceptible to public usage. Furthermore, its advanced antenna design allows for easier installation to accommodate mounting on pole tops, as well as retaining a connection to the network even when its direction has shifted slightly due to wind or seismic activity.

Privacy, scalability, flexible bandwidth, ease of deployment and reach are all significant benefits that Galaxy 1 provides as a comprehensive end-to-end AMI solution – as well as being a fill-in for the dark spots of a cellular network solution. Bgan is a secure, high-quality and affordable alternative to cellular and other terrestrial links for AMI backhaul. BGAN services are being used by a number of flagship US and Canadian electric utility to achieve 100% AMI coverage, extending its network to areas that cannot be connected through existing terrestrial technologies. This solution uses a Hughes 9201-M2M BGAN terminal to connect an AMI collection point to the utility’s data center via the Inmarsat satellite network. Each collection point is linked to multiple smart meters via a local radio network. The BGAN solution provides real-time, anytime access to meter data, while lowering the cost of collection in the previously unconnected areas.


Substation connectivity

In locations that are difficult, or too expensive, to reach with fixedline or cellular communications, Galaxy 1 can provide guaranteed SCADA or SCADA-like communications for electricity substations, either alone or in combination with VSAT. BGAN offers guaranteed Streaming IP data rates from 32kbps to 384kbps, and up to 492kbps on its Standard IP (best effort) service, so it has the flexibility to cope with both low-volume/high-frequency traffic and bursts of high-volume/low-frequency traffic. For occasional periods of high demand – such as when a maintenance team is working at the substation and needs to use BGAN intensively due to a natural or manmade disaster – Inmarsat could optimize bandwidth availability by dynamically reallocating spectrum to the satellite spotbeam that serves the location. BGAN could also be used to provide backup communications at any substation, which would automatically take over when the primary link fails.


Distribution Automation

Electric utilities can deploy BGAN for automated monitoring of elements along power distribution lines, especially in remote areas and cellular dark spots. In these cases, a single, high-availability connection at an access point that is fed by distribution devices (as reclosers, fault indicators, capacitor banks, and other components) may be the best solution for monitoring and control. This would support the Smart Grid concept by enabling utilities to maintain continuous surveillance of their distribution network for voltage fluctuations, outages and service demands. The compact, rugged build of the BGAN terminals makes them suitable for pole mounting at most locations, while global coverage and reliable service availability can ensure 24/7 visibility along distribution lines, extending the network to reach 100% of the utility’s customer base.


Mobile workforce

To work efficiently, engineers and maintenance crews in the field need to maintain regular contact with headquarters to receive work instructions and technical information. Cellular networks often meet this requirement, but often cannot be relied on in rural and remote areas. They are also unsuitable for exchanging large data files because of their limited and minimal bandwidth.

Galaxy 1 offers a comprehensive, secure satellite solution for mobile workers in the utilities sector – from handheld voice through to mobile broadband data at up to 492kbps. The IsatPhone Pro is a lightweight satphone with a long battery life and rugged design and will equip mobile workers with clear, reliable voice communications from any location. Other features include voicemail, text and email messaging, as well as GPS location data. When mobile broadband data is required in addition to voice, BGAN terminals are available from a range of manufacturers. The lightest BGAN terminal weighs less than 1kg, and all are easy to set up and use. The service provides voice and simultaneous IP data connections of up to 492kbps and supports all standard office applications, including email, internet browsing, videoconferencing, file transfer and VPN access. Roof-mounted vehicular versions of BGAN offer a true ‘comms on the move’ solution.


Disaster recovery

Business continuity is vital for utilities that provide essential services such as electricity, water and gas to millions of people, so they need to be able to recover immediately from natural or manmade disasters. When a catastrophic event causes terrestrial networks to fail, utilities companies can rapidly deploy Inmarsat terminals to provide an alternative communications path, enabling them to maintain communications and run critical applications. For example, Galaxy 1 would offer a fully secure, scalable, end-to-end network to protect Smart Grid data and resources, or could be used to direct operations for teams working to restore electric, water or gas supplies. Inmarsat is already a proven solution in disaster scenarios, and is used extensively by international aid agency Télécoms Sans Frontières, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Red Cross. The Bgan terminals with built-in WiFi can be deployed within minutes, are intuitive to use, operate from batteries or external power sources, and deliver out-of-the box access to the internet and global telephone networks.