Electrical utilities need wireless technologies to support the edge architecture required to connect self-sufficient energy systems called microgrids, according to Eve M. Schooler, Ph.D., a principal engineer and director of emerging IoT networks at Intel. Schooler said that private wireless networks could keep track of smart meters and manage distribution automation. Some utilities are looking to private networks for greater control of their wireless networks to reach customers and to meet requirements such as reliability, which are important to them, she said.
Schooler spoke with Monica Paolini, Ph.D., founder of analyst and consulting firm Senza Fili in an online forum Senza Fili calls Sparring Partners.
“We have this opportunity as we roll out new technologies — particularly edge computing and microgrids — to think about the message of sustainability,” Schooler said. “How do we make all of this infrastructure green and carbon-neutral? It is not entirely an easy roll-out. There are many regulatory issues. There will be a demand and a requirement for how carbon-neutral our structures are. We will have to meet requirements to reduce our carbon footprint in the renewables domain.”
Private wireless networks can improve the communications between the utility grids and distributed energy resources, Schooler said. She gave as an example privately owned wind, solar and storage assets.
“Sometimes the utility owns or leases these assets,” she said. “A private 4G or 5G network can give them better coverage and reliability than the public network if they need it and would provide shared data insights derived from these assets.”
According to Paolini, in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service’s Public Access License auction in September 2020, a few utilities paid more in dollars per megahertz-pop than anybody else did, including mobile operators.
“Those utilities saw the value of PAL licenses,” Paolini said. “This was the first time they could gain access to valuable licensed spectrum typically available only to mobile operators. The interest from these utilities in CBRS suggests that they’re not just trying to deploy wireless infrastructure at locations where they operate, but within a wide-area network. With a WAN private network, utilities own the assets and control the network performance, reliability and security.”
Schooler said that the purchase of CBRS PALs queues up the ability for utilities to roll out private wireless networks. She said that 12 utilities purchased PALs to deploy private networks. These utilities can use their PALs to overlay a private wireless network over the disparate wireless technologies for multiple use cases, she said.
According to Paolini, wireless connectivity not only could help utilities become more efficient and sustainable, but also it could create a revenue opportunity that counters a possible reduction in revenue from increased sustainability and efficiency stemming from the adoption of renewables and microgrids.
“Utilities have huge real estate assets everywhere and most importantly in the most coveted, high-density locations,” Paolini said. “Lampposts may be the most prominent example. Many of these assets can be used by mobile operators, wireless internet service providers, cities and others to install wireless infrastructure. They obviously can provide power, but also backhaul, because many utilities also own fiber. With the increased densification of the wireless infrastructure, these assets could be a substantial revenue opportunity for utilities.”
Coverage is one of the motivations to deploy private networks, Schooler said. In a fashion similar to telecommunications companies, utilities need access points and coverage, she said. To do that, Schooler said, they need to put in access points in various places. Utilities can use their existing real estate holdings — electric poles, lampposts and so on — for this infrastructure, and then repurpose it to share with others outside the electric industry, she said.
Senza Fili makes available video and transcripts of its Sparring Partners forum conversations on its website.
Don Bishop is executive editor and associate publisher of AGL Magazine.