Sizing up telecom's influence on the utility industry and smart grid development

John McDonald, IEEE


For those of us who have lived through the advances made in communications technology over the past 20 years, it is hard to imagine how we functioned with so little information a mere two decades ago. In the preceding decades, much of the innovation that took place in telecommunications was behind the scenes and largely invisible to the consumer. Entire infrastructures changed as consumers experienced innovations that took them from the rotary dial to touch tone phones. The same is true today as wireless technologies enter their 4G era (which represents many more than four refreshes of underlying infrastructure). The difference in the last 20 years is that more of the innovation and change has been experienced, and funded, by the consumer, as they elect to pay for value added services like texting and data plans while receiving new handsets every two years. 

The electric utility industry has long relied upon telecom technologies to operate and protect electric power transmission and distribution systems. In most cases, utilities have privately owned and operated their own infrastructure to ensure performance, availability, security, and survivability of this mission critical infrastructure.  Once in place, this infrastructure is often operated, largely unseen with no associated revenue stream for a minimum typical amortization period of 15 years.

These systems often operate over a vast service territory providing a variety of services that span needs from informative to mission critical. The informative services are nice to have but not essential, whereas mission critical services can mean the difference between life and death.  Utilities take the meaning of mission critical very seriously. During times of disaster recovery due to natural disasters, utilities often find that their path to restoration is paced by their communications systems remaining intact and operable. 

As we move into an era where generations have grown up with ubiquitous connectivity and up-to-the-second information, we see longstanding approaches to private communications being challenged by alternative approaches presented by newer technologies.  Public cellular carriers and hosted solutions promise to quench the insatiable thirst for information.  Alternatives to traditional private infrastructure are sure to capture traffic as intelligent grids are developed, but as the baton of enterprise leadership passes to younger generations, it is imperative they sustain longstanding, guiding principles for performance, availability, security, and survivability of this mission critical infrastructure.  It must remain in the forefront of the minds of future decision makers. 

There are many opportunities to apply modern telecommunications technologies to the challenge of developing an intelligent grid, and there are lessons to be learned by examining the successes and failures in both industries over the past decades. It is essential as we strive to modernize the electrical grid to not only look to the successes of the telecom industry over the past decades, but also to look to emerging trends that will continue to drive the success. There are those who predict we are approaching the end of the web era and entering into the social era. We may find that the web-hosted solution of tomorrow may become as irrelevant to our customers as the touch-tone phone of yesterday. As we modernize, we have to be careful that we are not solving the problems of yesterday, but those of tomorrow. Tomorrow's leaders need to be aware that they too may be faced with quickly changing paradigms they have only just become familiar with.

John McDonald is an IEEE Fellow, a past president of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) and past chair of the IEEE PES Substations Committee.