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Technology and Network Convergence: Forging a Path to Smart Grid, Smart Cities and Internet of Things

By Jeff Carkhuff, VP-Global Electricity Solutions Marketing, Itron
Quote: “Led by companies such as Cisco and Itron, a growing ecosystem of smart grid technology providers have collaborated to evolve network architecture so that utility field area networks look and behave much more like enterprise IT networks”
In North America, utilities have installed nearly 70 million smart meters over the last decade. This technology investment has delivered tangible value to both utilities and consumers. But utilities have yet to realize the full potential of this platform and the value of the data these systems generate.  This is primarily due to common challenges that utilities, as well as technology providers, have struggled with:

  • Smart meters are viewed mainly as a cash registers and instruments of customer billing rather than as sophisticated sensors that provide a rich source of data and insight to improve grid operations.
  • For the most part, smart metering systems have been deployed in technology “silos,” meaning they run on purpose-built, largely proprietary networks that were designed for meter reading rather than on a standards-based, multi-application IP-platform.
  • These systems have created a relative tsunami of new data–more frequent and detailed usage data, event data from power outages and voltage anomalies and meter tamper alerts–data that utilities are struggling to manage and create new business value from.
  • More than smart meters, the term “smart grid” implies grid devices, assets and data interacting in real time and with less human intervention to respond to changing grid conditions. This degree of interoperability and automation has been elusive or cost-prohibitive thus far for the low-voltage level of the network.

Most of these challenges are technology-centered, while some are cultural and organizational, but the upside is that these challenges are being solved. Information technology and operational technology are converging rapidly in the utility and energy space to create a new strategic and operational reality. This comes none too soon in light of significant business challenges utilities worldwide are facing as well as the economic and environmental challenges we all face.
Led by companies such as Cisco and Itron, a growing ecosystem of smart grid technology providers have collaborated to evolve network architecture so that utility field area networks look and behave much more like enterprise IT networks. Solution providers are also introducing more distributed intelligence to grid operations that enable grid assets and devices that are currently “siloed” to work in concert with one another. In addition, the available value stream of this network infrastructure investment is broadening by connecting to emerging markets and applications such as smart cities and the Internet of Things (IoT).
The heavy lifting really began four years ago when Itron and Cisco announced an agreement to work together to re-architect Itron’s widely-deployed OpenWay smart grid network to IPv6 architecture from Cisco. This joint development effort, undertaken by the industry leaders in utility automation and networking, was a watershed effort in the industry. The smart metering network became a multi-application smart grid and smart city network, broadening significantly its usefulness and value.  A growing ecosystem of leading smart grid technology providers can now build to a common reference architecture through the Connected Grid Cisco Developer Network to accelerate adoption and spark innovation.
But standards-based, multi-application network architecture by itself was not enough to address all those challenges. Itron believes that for the smart grid to deliver on its promised value, data analysis and action must take place where it makes most sense–increasingly at the edge of the network rather than in the utility back office. That’s the whole idea behind ITRON RIVA™, a new distributed intelligence and advanced communication platform the company launched this fall.
Distributing intelligence across the network allows us to economically solve utility problems that couldn’t be feasibly solved before, greatly increasing the value and timeliness of smart grid analytic applications as well as the utilization of network capacity. Specifically, these development efforts yield a new and common set of technology attributes for meters, grid sensors and other types of intelligent devices, whether they come from Itron or third-party partners who embed the technology or build to the standard.

  • Locational awareness: For the first time, smart meters and grid devices know where they are in relation to other grid assets (feeders, phases, substations, transformers, distributed generation, other meters, etc.). This “self-awareness” opens up an entirely new approach to smart grid use cases and applications.
  • “Multilingual” devices: A unified software platform supports multiple communication/application protocols, allowing a single meter or grid device to simultaneously speak the language of distribution automation, load control, and smart metering. This enables highly localized communication and action among diverse devices, assets and grid control systems to respond to changing conditions at the edge of the network.
  • Edge processing power: Thanks to Moore’s Law, Itron is embedding the computing equivalent of a recent generation smartphone in high-volume meters and grid devices to enable advanced communications, data processing and analysis in the edge device.

The ability for edge devices to know exactly where they are, process and analyze data independently and communicate with other types of devices creates many new possibilities for improving the accuracy, resolution and timeliness of analytic applications. A clear opportunity exists to deliver new business value in areas such as localized demand response/load control, asset monitoring and management, outage detection and response, renewables integration and diversion detection. This approach allows utilities to put intelligence where it makes the most sense, whether that’s in the edge device, the field area network itself or at the enterprise level, meaning analytics no longer must always take place in the back office where “tomorrow” or “next week” is no longer good enough.
Perhaps most interestingly, the Itron Riva distributed intelligence platform has enabled Itron to revolutionize grid communications. Known as adaptive communications technology, this capability incorporates multiple communications media–RF Mesh, Wi-Fi and Power Line Carrier–on the same chipset, working in concert to solve key network performance and connectivity challenges. Running on the OpenWay smart grid network, adaptive communications technology always utilizes the fastest and most reliable communication path for every message and every link based on location, network operating conditions and the nature of the application or data.  This is true whether communicating with an office application or another device on the grid.
This makes deployment of network infrastructure easier, faster and less costly while offering a single communications solution for both dense and difficult urban environments as well as lower-density areas. Adaptive communications technology flattens the cost curve during the latter stages of network deployment when the “hard-to-reach” devices and areas must be addressed. In other words, it provides a network that continuously self-optimizes based on geography, topology, operating conditions and business requirements.
Together, these developments mean that many utilities throughout the world are in a good position to leverage these recent and significant advancements in network architecture, edge intelligence and analytics as they implement their grid modernization strategies and connect to broader opportunities such as smart cities and IoT.
There is absolutely no doubt that the convergence of information technology and operational technology in the global utility industry will continue and accelerate, and that technology advancement will continue to outpace the asset lifecycle paradigm utilities have so long operated within. Nevertheless, thresholds are reached that warrant a shift in thinking about how to approach and solve problems. For tomorrow’s grid, that time is now.