The Newton-Evans Research Co. has released initial findings from its extensive research program looking into electric power utility use of various telecommunications technologies and plans for adding capabilities to meet the requirements of the emerging smart grid. The ongoing research program is entitled, “Global Study of Data Communications Usage Patterns and Plans in the Electric Power Industry: 2011-2015.”

With more than 100 of the world's leading utilities expected to join the study, here is a summary of a few key observations at the midpoint in the study:

AMI Projects: While power line carrier technology led in mentions of data communications technologies being used for at least some portion of meter communications, nearly one-third reported having no plans for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployments at this time and 20% were undecided about their eventual choice of AMI communications methods.

Plans for connecting smart and advanced meters to the utility's telecommunications network varied, with 36% saying they had no such plans. Just over 25% cited use of public cellular services, 24% reported some use of RF mesh networks, and 13% reported use or plans to use point-to-multipoint radio. Many utilities are now taking a “wait and see” attitude toward AMI with regulatory decisions not yet rendered in several states and international regions.

  • Interoperability and Open Protocols: One question group in the survey measures the level of agreement or disagreement with 11 statements related to communications issues — interoperability, service-level agreements, industry pace of change, open protocols, synchrophasor use and others — that were contributed by suppliers and utilities. Thus far, survey participants have indicated strong “agreement” for two topics: interoperability being important to the utility and the use of open protocols providing a “degree of protection from premature product obsolescence.”

  • Internet Protocol and Smart Grid Communications: The majority of respondents to date concur on the notion of using Internet protocol for all smart grid communications. However, 20% of the initial group indicated they do not support standardizing on the use of Internet protocol for any smart grid communications.

  • Communications for Distribution Automation: Distribution automation is a key component of smart grid. For distribution automation, 40% of utilities surveyed to date use licensed point-to-multipoint communications and 38% use unlicensed point-to-multipoint. Numerous other technologies and approaches to distribution automation communications were also mentioned, including cellular, POTS, frame relay, paging, GPRS, fiber, leased lines and private fiber-based Ethernet.

  • Public Versus Private Networks: The debate on private versus public ownership of utility telecommunications networks is not going to end soon, based on findings reported. It seems entirely likely that a majority of electric utility networks in North America and several international regions will remain essentially private, supplemented by the prudent use of commercial network services for less critical activities.

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