The biggest machine in the world — the U.S. electric power grid — will have to become both harder and smarter. After the superstorms of 2012, that thought is pretty much the general consensus, in the industry and among the public, and communications platforms, the central nervous system of the 21st century grid, are already the focus of much of the discussion.

Before Hurricane Sandy, public dialogue about the smart grid was trending the same way as federal stimulus money — downward. Sandy changed everything. In the superstorm's aftermath, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called for a hardening of the grid. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo even went so far as to say, it is vital “to immediately invest in new construction, replacement and upgrades to transition the grid” to a “dynamic and flexible network” with enhanced sensors and controls providing real-time information about outages and usage.

While response to natural disasters is a key driver behind modernizing the grid, there is a trend in the electric industry to go even further. The new strategy also is to leverage, expand and integrate smart grid communications both to improve operational efficiency and increase the value of communications networks.

Leveraging the Network

“It began with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI),” said Michelle Rae McLean, director of product marketing at Silver Spring Networks. “But, as an industry, we've reached a tipping point; we're getting beyond AMI. People are realizing that we're not just building networks for the smart meter, rather we're building a smart grid.”

McLean said utilities want to leverage their networks for multiple applications, including distribution automation (DA), demand-side management (DSM) and peak-load management. She cited Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which is running a peak-load management program over its AMI infrastructure: “They could not have involved 42,000 customers as economically with a separate infrastructure. It improves the return on their AMI investment.”

Most experts agree that communications within electric utilities is siloed, and leveraging communications assets between departments is often difficult or impossible. Too often bid specs for, say, AMI, are written without considering any other groups in the utility. That is the case, even though an AMI that blankets the service area with two-way communications, if designed right, also could be used for DA.