Power and utilities taking digital journey with 5G

The power and utilities industry was always a slow adopter of technology, but an old industry is beginning to embrace new ideas as part of the digital transformation journey. 

There are many changes behind the scenes of the energy industry. This is driven by smart grids, access to customer data, new regulation, and dramatic changes to the global energy market, and it encompasses power generation and distribution, a myriad of new competitors (brought on, in part, by new regulation), diversification, and increased usage of alternative energy.

There are also dramatic changes among consumers. Major consumers of energy such as data center operators are pledging carbon neutrality. To better compete, utility companies need to transform. Business objectives like speed to market and operational agility need to balance a strong security posture with regulatory compliance.

As a new technology, 5G has been at the forefront of helping utility companies to lower operating costs, consolidate legacy environments, and be more responsive to the emergence of new market realities.

Current challenges

One of the underlying challenges with utilities has been with legacy infrastructure itself. For example, the utility sector has historically invested significantly in purpose-built, but highly reliable network infrastructure.

This included microwave and synchronous digital heirarchy for critical applications such as tele-protection – systems that support the uninterruptible supply of power (e.g., high-voltage lines, transformers, reactors) – as well as ‘supervisory control and data acquisition’, which allows organisations to control these critical industrial processes.

There are literally hundreds of application environments; many are also purpose-built to support a highly specialised industrial process.

Historically, this sector would overprovision with both high-capacity circuits and redundant links to guarantee the availability of even basic applications, such as signalling. As the number of applications increased, the underlying costs and complexity increased over time, making these networks difficult to manage.

Additional workloads such as video were served either using parallel networks or communication services or on proprietary systems.

With many utility companies to this day, operational technology and IT networks remain very limited. In some extreme cases, the replacement parts on legacy systems, including critical infrastructure, have been purchased on the internet, as the dated technology is no longer supported by the incumbent supplier.

 5G as the solution for power and utilities

As a transformative networking technology, 5G is helping the power and utility sector to better automate some of its legacy systems, infrastructure, and processes. As a starting point, 5G is set up to deliver highly secure and reliable communications, which the sector still needs, but in a much more agile and adaptive way.

For example, rather than overprovisioning fixed circuits, 5G offers a ‘no wires alternative’ which brings lower-latency links, essential for many business-critical applications.

The networks, in turn, are allowing businesses to slice, dice, and segment the infrastructure to support the required workload. In other words, 5G networks are being provisioned in such a way that attributes such as latency, jitter, throughput, bandwidth, QoS, security policy, and isolation are orchestrated for the workload.

High-capacity links for real-time video surveillance will require one set of programming attributes, while narrowband monitoring applications and internet of things sensors for e-metering require another. 5G also enables rapid large-scale deployments of new endpoints such as routers, cameras, and sensors at any location within the network.

China an early adopter

China Southern Power Grid (CSPG) is one such company considered an early adopter in 5G. It provides power for five provinces in China and serves a population of 254 million people. Focusing efforts on network slicing and ultra-low latency, it is currently using 5G to support applications such as video surveillance, substation and intelligent power distribution, and load balancing.

In line with the direction of the market, these solutions are deployed across multiple virtual network slices sharing one common physical network and control plane. CSPG reports an average latency of 8.3 ms (with variations from 6.8 ms to 11.65 ms), supporting its critical business applications that need to operate in environments of 20 ms (or less).

While similar solutions could be achieved in fixed networks, each requirement may require its own unique dedicated setup and configuration.

CSPG is also using 5G to make dramatic improvements in field operations. Using IoT and UAVs, it can lower the inspection time for all power transmission towers from 10 days (where inspections were manual) to two hours. 5G will also help in areas ranging from the ability to better troubleshoot and isolate faults to improvements in site inspections.

Outlook for 5G in smart power grids

5G technologies such as enhanced mobile broadband, ultra-reliable low-latency communication, and massive machine-type communications will continue to play an important role in helping the utility sector transition to smart grids. These enhancements allow the business to set up networks much faster and dimension them to the hundreds of specialised industrial processes.

5G-led transformation will be an important counterbalance that faces many uncertainties, such as increases in regulation, cost to comply, the de-centralisation of grids, and the rise of renewable and alternative fuel sources. There are also many new customer demands and requirements.

Power grids will continue to become more open, with many smaller participants involved in generating, trading, and storing energy. 5G can play a positive role in the ecosystem, and it will lower costs to serve by reducing operational costs in the short term.

As the utility sector becomes more data-driven, managing information from the customers and grids will also lead to better insights and decision-making. Data will be important for improving uptime and service availability (via root cause analysis or predictive maintenance).

It will pave the way for helping smart grids and end customers to evolve through recommendations and next-best actions. 5G will help make grids smart, but also help drive the industry into new operating models.