The world and Europe are currently experiencing a context of climate emergency, energy scarcity and electrification of energy consumption. In this environment, electricity distribution networks face a challenge of continuous improvement with a focus on more efficient management of energy demand, generation, and distribution through increasingly complex power grids.
The idea of the “Smart Grid” is not new, rather it has evolved thanks to the development of new technologies. As a result, the digitization of distribution networks is one area of improvement that will radically change the efficiency of power generation and distribution systems. The digitization of these Smart Grid networks requires real-time actions and the collection of huge amounts of data from multiple points in the network. The application of 5G technology in these scenarios will enable new, data-intensive uses (Big Data) allowing improvements in the automation and control of electricity generation and distribution networks.
Over the past couple of years, there has been an influx of marketing messages about 5G, all of them from an end-user perspective. And while they have focused on higher bandwidth on our cellular phones or no latency (so we can play online games while sitting in a park), this only constitutes a very small part of the end-user scope.
There are plenty of other uses with many fundamental aspects, such as the practical application of 5G in the electricity distribution sector. As this sector falls under the critical infrastructure designation, it requires a holistic approach covering connectivity and data collection needs along with data processing by applying artificial intelligence techniques and remote computing in an environment that guarantees the security of the infrastructure.
Socio-economic reality and Smart Grids
As already mentioned, our current environment is pushing for digitalization in those operational processes that cannot meet the needs of the socio-economic reality:
- Increased energy costs
- Rise in inflation
- Incorporation of renewable energies
- New energy generation models (distributed generation)
- New legal requirements (energy efficiency, emissions reduction, etc.).
Besides these conditioning factors, another important one in today’s environment is reaching the goal of net zero (cutting greenhouse gas emissions to as close to zero as possible, with some residual emissions being reabsorbed from the atmosphere). Attaining this goal relies heavily on Smart Grids. Hence, the average annual expenditure on these type of networks is set to double in the coming years.
Average annual expenditure on investment in electricity grids in a Net Zero scenario, 2015-2030
New technologies play a fundamental role in this context of increased investment in Smart Grids. Thus, now more than ever, we need the tools to facilitate these new requirements. With its well-known features, 5G plays a very important role in this regard:
- Higher bandwidth
- Low latency
- Higher device density (IoT)
- Network analytics capabilities
Indeed, these features (among others) allow us to develop solutions that were previously not possible or that didn’t achieve the level of efficiency achievable today.
5G and Smart Grids
Now that we are clearer about the electricity distribution industry and where it is headed, what role do communications (and more specifically 5G) play in helping to evolve Smart Grids?
These questions will be addressed below.
Gateway in Electrical distribution
What is a communication Gateway in electrical distribution and what features should it have?
Let’s start with a common characteristic seen in other areas where it takes a while to amortize the high investment in infrastructure. In such cases, deployment from scratch (or greenfield) is neither technically nor economically feasible. Instead, previously deployed assets (e.g., electric meters in homes or remotes in substations) are required. This is where the communications device becomes a Gateway between the legacy world and the Internet.
- Remote management and monitoring are essential in this type of environments: Electrical distribution networks comprise thousands of substations and transformation stations in hard-to-access locations. This can be very costly in terms of time and travel where onsite actions are required. Reducing these actions requires ZTP (Zero-Touch Provisioning) installation mechanisms, remote monitoring of assets and communications, and centralized and remote management of massive changes.
- Any equipment of this type must also be certified for use in electrical environments as it will be installed at numerous different points of the grid, substations, transformation stations, generation plants, meter rooms, electric vehicle charging points, distributed generation points, etc. Furthermore, these places are often unattended, non-air-conditioned areas with demanding electromagnetic and electrical safety conditions.
- As these devices are destined for transformation stations, substations, industrial environments, and the like, with unfavorable environmental conditions, it will be essential for them to include a fanless heat dissipation system.
- To ensure proper resilient operation in demanding temperature environments, such devices must also pass a series of laboratory tests to approve compliance with national and international standards.
- Given that 5G is a new technology, the impact of the use of 5G bands and modules in environments with demanding temperature, power consumption and electromagnetic protection requirements needs to be validated.
- As an essential feature (though perhaps not mandatory in many cases), having the necessary information and ability to interact with electricity grid control elements requires supporting – simultaneously with 5G – the various local network technologies that provide access to the power grid sensors and automation functions located in areas where 5G technology cannot be deployed (due to lack of coverage, electromagnetic interference, lack of space, lack of infrastructure to power and maintain radio equipment or because they are legacy equipment that is costly to replace or evolve). To support such use cases, this type of communications platform for power distribution networks must verify 5G’s compatibility with other radio technologies like LoRaWAN, ZigBee, LE (Low Energy) Bluetooth or wired technologies such as PLC (Power Line Communications) that allow power supply cables to be used as communication channels. These local wireless interfaces serve to connect sensors:
- Physical threat proximity detection
- People counting devices for presence detection
- Temperature/humidity/gases, etc.
This data is particularly important given that the equipment will be installed in unattended locations.
Data network architecture versus electricity distribution network
Application of 5G Core Features
5G technology incorporates mechanisms that provide greater reliability, greater security and capillarity, and lower latency. It enables centralizing automation functions and automatic decision making to correct problems of inefficient power distribution in real time. This allows us to take Smart Grids a step further and in a disruptive way.
5G network architecture is designed to operate more dynamically and efficiently than any other network before it. The biggest breakthrough for 5G technologies and networks has come from the softwarization and virtualization of network functions. This has opened the door to the digitalization of mobile networks and the implementation of management and automation solutions through orchestrators, creating elastic, agile networks that can respond to the needs of different traffic in a granular and efficient manner.
In short, to exploit 5G’s operational benefits, you need data, data that the 5G network itself provides (from other systems or network functions) through NWDAF (NetWork Data Analytic Function).
Cybersecurity in critical infrastructure
Thanks to the development of communications Gateways for electricity distribution, critical infrastructures – which until now were either partially or totally isolated from public networks – will be able to use 5G networks deployed by third parties, increasing exposure to cyberattacks derived from the use of public networks, both Internet and radio networks in remote and unattended environments.
The category of Gateway allows 5G to acquire an even more relevant role. For example, besides Internet security, it will also allow security measures in the legacy world (OT security) – which were never needed in the past as legacy systems were not exposed to remote attacks from the Internet. This cybersecurity option becomes particularly important bearing in mind that these systems are responsible for managing critical infrastructures.
See our blog post on cybersecurity on critical infrastructures. However, here is a summary of what will be needed:
- A layer to remotely manage firewalls deployed in remote environments accessible through a 5G network that connect the OT to IT or OT to OT network, such as substations or transformation centers, and to keep the security software running on these firewalls updated. This security software consists of:
- Runtime and detection engines inside the firewall
- Threat knowledge database
- Another layer to be used, is a network traffic analyzer to make an inventory of automatic or XDR (Network Detection and Response) equipment based on artificial intelligence.
From a cybersecurity perspective in electricity distribution, the European Union has already established recommendations for all actors within the electrical distribution world by recommending standards such as ISO IEC 27001/27019, IEC62443, IEC 62351 and ISO/IEC 31000.
According to a report by the Elcano Royal Institute, the application of 5G technology in the energy sector means that infrastructure will be more exposed. So, any new 5G solutions must, by default, include protection technologies against cybersecurity threats.
For example, the latest 3GPP version for 5G networks will make it possible to address securing radio channels and how to strengthen security for early detection of intrusion or anomalous behavior in 5G communications or the customer’s network.
Complement the challenge with Edge Computing
5G technology enables a fourth feature in its quest to offer the electricity distribution industry better solutions. Edge Computing is an additional advanced possibility of a 5G solution. In this respect, a communications platform in electricity distribution environments will also serve as an Edge Computing node and enhance the end-to-end solution by enabling certain applications to run closer to the end user (Edge), thus bringing great advantages such as:
- Lower latency
- A more optimized and rational use of the communications network
- Application availability in the event of network downtime.
In this way, electricity distribution companies have increased capacity to exploit their data and improve their operational processes and business models.
This feature is supported based on a more efficient use of the radio spectrum together with distributed computing capabilities across the networks involved. Distributed computing capabilities are deployed at different levels of the network to enable increased automation in electric grids on route to digitization, and thus improve the real-time response capability to incidents and anomalies.
We therefore find ourselves facing a very exciting challenge with the goal of having electricity distribution networks with ever more amounts of data in circulation and increasingly complex automation. It follows that today’s communications technologies must meet the complex requirements arising from these needs.
Of course, this brings the challenge of offering wireless data and communications services that surpass the capabilities of existing platforms in the sector, providing performance that far exceeds other currently available solutions – in addition to giving them capabilities to act on the environment and run AI or application-specific applications on the Edge.
The development of communications devices that incorporate more and more advanced technology such as 5G – and all the above-mentioned characteristics associated with it – are and will be key to the success of the growth of Smart Grids:
- State-of-the-art WWAN
- Multiple WLAN interfaces for connecting sensors
- OT cybersecurity for critical infrastructure
- Decentralized or Edge computing
At Teldat, we have accompanied and worked with electrical distribution companies for the past ten years to provide creative solutions, to the challenges that they face. To help them navigate this new challenge in the best possible way, we are already working to incorporate 5G, Cybersecurity and Artificial Intelligence in our latest generation industrial-grade routers.
Source & other points.