The Challenges and Future of Smart Grid Communications

Balancing Technology and Business Drivers

Where Most Utilities Are – Many Applications, Many Forms of Smart Grid Communications

Most utilities are still deploying different forms of communication technologies for every grid application to gain connectivity and control of their end-devices—from smart meters and controllers, to fault circuit indicators, remote monitoring units, reclosers and more. This creates challenges.

Utilities in various countries and regions have different strategies, market characteristics, regulatory requirements, and environment constraints. And with multiple communication technologies available, utilities are facing even more difficulties in choosing the right communication solution that can address not only the AMI and SCADA/DA needs they have today, but also the Smart Grid applications of tomorrow–Distributed Generation, Renewables, Smart Streetlighting and EV Charging.

The Culture Challenge – Embracing Change

  • In addition to finding the best communication solution, utilities also have challenges in “digitalization adaptation” –embracing the new norm towards a more digital, connected world, which may require a change in business culture and behavior. There is also a need to upgrade the skillsets of the old personnel and finding the right balance to mix with the more adaptable younger generation of employees.
    As more and more advanced communications solutions evolve, there is also a bigger challenge in terms of IT/OT infrastructure hardening to avoid cyber threats as well as integration of different OEM vendors. As such, utilities will require fresh thinking to develop a technology-leveraged management framework for project governance and implementation.
  • Government and Regulatory. Without government support, utilities cannot simply move forward–not only on supporting flexible tariffs regulations & guidelines but also on tax incentives for green solution initiatives, communication infrastructure roll-out approvals, and further easing up on transmit power and spectrum regulations (especially with the use of licensed-free frequency bands) to help utilities be less dependent on public networks and have the option to deploy their own private RF networks.
  • The challenge is properly educating consumers on the benefits of AMI and supporting grid modernization initiatives, and awareness of future benefits gained like the ability to manage consumption in real time, or installing solar panels on their roofs to sell energy back to the utility.

The Networking Challenge – Supporting Multiple Applications

The Smart Grid promises to bring us a number of important benefits including:

  • improved reliability
  • reduced costs
  • greater security

Delivered by a number of key applications–both existing and envisioned–that are the foundation of the need for the Smart Grid network.

Application Overload

Many moving pieces make the Smart Grid “smart.” Applications specific to an electric utility’s Smart Grid may include:

  • Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) that includes automatic meter reading, potentially with Time‐of‐Use pricing and remote (dis)connect
  • Distribution/Feeder Automation (DA/FA) to improve voltage/VAR control, and better manage fault and outage conditions
  • Power Quality Monitoring and Control across the utility’s entire grid, normally employing systems that use Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA)
  • Demand Response (DR) and Demand‐side Management (DSM) that leverage the AMI Neighborhood Area Network (NAN) to shed load during peak periods in residences and businesses
  • Wide Area Measurement System (WAMS) that requires taking precisely synchronized readings from Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs)
  • Distributed Generation (DG) and Distributed Storage (DS) that are becoming increasingly necessary to meet Renewable Portfolio Standards for wind, solar and other sources of renewable energy
  • Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Infrastructure to drive initiatives around sustainability and green business – an essential component in today’s market with some government grants on reduced tax and/or tax credits for adapting green energy to reduce carbon emission.
  • Smart Street Lights to help municipalities and cities reduce their energy consumption by implementing overnight dimming profiles during periods of minimal activity and provide utilities with operations and maintenance costs savings with remote monitoring and control of lighting assets including real-time metering and theft detection

Additional enterprise applications employed by the utility includes:

  • Client/Server and Host/Terminal systems used by various departments, including billing, engineering, operations, finance, regulatory compliance, human resources, etc.
  • Voice over IP (VoIP) to supplement or replace use of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)
  • Site Security with Video Surveillance, particularly at substations
  • Wi‐Fi Access in a Field Area Network (FAN) around substations to provide work crews with access to enterprise client/server applications and, optionally, VoIP

Identifying the key drivers of change and the challenges you’ll face during your own smart grid implementations as early on in the planning process as possible saves time, money, and frustration.


Author: Rangel Floranda
Customer Solutions Director, APAC