“The business case for a multipurpose network would be much stronger if one common communications system would spread the cost over several departments,” noted John McDonald, director of technology strategy and policy development for GE Digital Energy. But, of course, each department would have to “give up some ownership.”

Of course, that can lead to cultural issues, which can be much stronger than the business case, he added. CEOs need to mandate that the communication silos be broken down before any investment is made across the utility, said McDonald. “Where that hasn't happened, we still have the silos and each group doing their own technology procurement.”

Gary Rackliffe, ABB's vice president for smart grid in North America, also sees utilities expanding, leveraging and integrating their networks. “You don't achieve benefits just by putting a smart meter on a house. The next wave of smart grid investment is going to be connecting the dots.” That means digitizing the grid: connecting the AMI to the distribution automation DA and outage management systems (OMS). “Integrating and developing these technologies is one of the keys to developing a comprehensive and effective smart grid,” said Rackliffe.

A Need for Speed

Funding aside, utilities are finding this may not be quite as easy as they would like. For instance, smart grid applications such as DA may have response, bandwidth and latency requirements that the AMI specs may not meet. Bandwidth requirements depend on how much information needs to be sent within any given application (that is, are data points or files being sent?). With latency, cyber security is always a major consideration: How much security is desired versus how much latency can be handled?

Matt Olson, senior electrical engineer of telecommunications and network engineering for Burns & McDonnell, concurred. “There is a lot of discussion about whether AMI and distribution automation should be merged on the same network,” he said. “What I'm seeing is it depends on the network and that it is very difficult to do consistent distribution automation on an AMI-speed network,” he said. “If you want to do things with real-time controls, you need things that will get you real-time responses.”

According to Todd Gurela, worldwide operations director of connected energy networks at Cisco, interest in integrated communications is growing. More and more, he noted, “strategic discussions with customers focus on multiservice communications systems that are built with much higher bandwidth” for the simple reason that these systems must not only be able to handle today's communications needs but also the needs of the future.

For instance, he said, “On the transmission level, you are looking at ultralow-latency communications networks to run real-time control systems with teleprotection as well as running all the secondary systems.” That means “you need to have a much higher bandwidth to handle information that comes back from your utility assets,” said Gurela.

As such, he said, the trend is toward IP-based network architecture, which is designed from day one to enable multiple applications while also providing utilities the ability to prioritize traffic over those networks. “You can prioritize so that safety and security protection data always take priority over secondary systems data,” he noted. Furthermore, he added, “They are very flexible networks, because they allow multiple data sources to be engaged over the same investment.”

Utilities will be able to communicate with customers directly through their own infrastructure or via a service provider's network. And, because the technology is so flexible, utilities can bring in new inputs, including more integration with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and other energy systems within the customer premises.