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Perspectives

Grid Modernization Will Require Active, Holistic Network Management

Grid Modernization Will Require Active, Holistic Network Management

Utilities are under immense pressure in the pursuit of maximum uptime and resilience as well as enhanced power quality and lowered carbon footprints. New services are being demanded by customers and new and divergent forms of energy are testing the flexibility and capacity of their networks. Additionally, smart devices and cloud-based computing are creating and moving data in staggering amounts and speeds — all while creating numerous new pathways for cyber vulnerability.

Data on electric systems is gaining new attention among operators who are seeking to better understand the information flowing on their networks and how to leverage that data for reliability, security and economic benefits. Integrated smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) offer the promise of near-real time knowledge of the energy delivery system and heuristics for forecasting potential vulnerabilities in order to prevent outages and mitigate those that occur. With applications behind the meter, as well as down the full energy delivery chain, network intelligence strategies involving advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution automation (DA), substation automation (SA) and other technologies carry the challenge of unprecedented volumes of data about system state, asset health, customer habits, and potential cyber anomalies.

In order to capture, manage and exploit the benefits of automation, utilities are implementing telecommunications infrastructure to enable smart devices and automation systems effectively. Often these systems include multiple communications networks of multiple technologies and lineage. At the same time, utilities are faced with head count and budget constraints that require them to accomplish more with fewer resources.  

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Despite these advantages, it’s arguable whether utilities are ready to manage and capitalize on these burgeoning connections and data flows. Maintaining the design and deployment of multiple networks — each containing thousands to millions of devices and information capture points — can often fall outside a utility’s skill set, priorities or resources, even when they know it’s necessary.

Few scenarios capture the conundrum better than smart devices: Various communication networks of differing technologies are employed by devices to communicate with each other, from access and transport networks including mesh and point-to-point wireless to fiber, microwave and commercial cellular. Bringing these networks together into an end-to-end network is an integration puzzle, and a necessary one at that, given that reliable communications between these often disparate devices is crucial to their reliability.

The approach taken by leading utilities is the development of an Integrated Network Management System (INMS), serving as a “manager of managers” that allows a single end-to-end vision of all the devices and services that are being delivered by the network. It provides network surveillance, provisioning, security monitoring and controls as well as the ability to leverage telecom automating to continually learn and improve performance. Often an INMS is housed in a network operations center (NOC).

Due to resource limitations, utilities reach out to outside expert firms who can efficiently assist the utility in developing an appropriate INMS and offer supplemental or primary support for network operations. Operations support is often described as managed network operations (MNO).

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Utilities are increasingly leveraging experts among MNO service providers because they bring dedicated staff and deep experience at a much lower incremental cost compared to what’s required to invest in, train and maintain a dedicated in-house network management group, as utilities expand their telecommunications footprint. Nearly 80 percent of respondents to Black & Veatch’s 2019 Strategic Directions: Smart Utilities Report reported they expect their telecommunications programs to grow over the next five to 10 years and are actively planning for that shift, while another 16 percent anticipate change but haven’t begun planning.

The following are some of the factors fueling the move toward outsourced, holistic network management:

  • Proven efficiencies of moving from more traditional internet protocol (IP) routing to multiprotocol label switching (MPLS): In conventional IP routing, the next move of a packet is determined by a router, which inspects the packet’s destination IP address — a time-consuming process that draws heavily on hardware resources and leads to diminished performance. Under MPLS, the first router can determine a packet’s entire journey at the outset, resulting in a quicker path and a smoother draw on resources. But as reliance grows on smart devices that employ MPLS, many utilities simultaneously struggle with staffing limitations, limited skill sets or workforce attrition. The challenge for utilities is often compounded by the devices themselves as many network analysis tools have varying and proprietary graphical user interfaces, operational procedures and training requirements. The deployment of massive numbers of devices has utilities thinking whether their communications applications can keep up. 
  • Network security requirements are growing continuously: Utilities recognize the critical role that cybersecurity plays in ensuring the future health, reliability and resilience of the electric supply. Respondents to Black & Veatch’s survey continue to name cybersecurity as one of the driving forces behind modernization efforts. But the distributed nature of these projects – from the multiple site types to the sheer volume of low-impact field devices and distributed geographical nature of utility assets – raises the challenge of shutting the doors on hackers.
  • The mandate for a central view of the whole network: Competing time and resource demands constrain the ability of utility managers to manage their networks, such as accommodating multi-vendor, multi-technology environments; and supporting end-to-end circuits, service provisioning, and performance monitoring and asset management.
  • Extreme weather: Today’s systems face seemingly constant assaults, and while the challenges presented by modernization play a large role in those conflicts, so does extreme weather. A recent report by Utility Dive about the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) analysis of outage reports, “stability may be more tied to weather and climate than modernization.” The EIA reported that the average duration of electric power outages nearly doubled between 2016 and 2017. The EIA blamed major storms.

It’s clear that smart grids will require active network management given the grid’s increasing interconnectedness. Actively managing millions of devices — many of them tied to varying transports with varying UIs and protocols — is the challenge.

The solution lies in choosing a trusted adviser with deep experience in network management services to give utilities piece of mind that this transformative approach to smarter networks will be seamless, secure and worth the investment.

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