The power must flow
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:
L-R: The JRC's Peter Couch and Adrian Grilli

Philip Mason discusses the use of comms in the utilities sector with Adrian Grilli and Peter Couch of the Joint Radio Company

There are few more mission-critical activities than power generation. It plays an ever-more crucial role in our increasingly connected society. And this will only intensify as we move towards the proposed widespread introduction of electric cars by 2040.

At the same time, utility companies must deal with huge changes when it comes to how they conduct their business. This includes developing diverse methods of production via innovations such as tidal energy and photovoltaic systems.

Digital comms are vital to keep the UK from sliding, temporarily or otherwise, back into the 19th century – from handheld devices used by operatives onsite to real-time monitoring technology deployed across the network.

Modern-day complexities
Few in the utilities industry are better placed to give an overview of this rapidly evolving landscape than Adrian Grilli (pictured left) and Peter Couch. Grilli is the managing director of the Joint Radio Company – which provides spectrum consultation to the sector –, while Couch came on board as JRC chief executive officer in September following two decades in broadcast and mobile comms.

Speaking of current challenges, Grilli says: “The national power network has fundamentally altered in recent times, moving away from the traditional model where you essentially had a few large 400,000-volt power stations at the top feeding down into the system. Those power stations, while clearly still vital, now exist alongside numerous smaller energy producers, connected to a network which in turn has become increasingly dynamic.”

He continues: “One huge impact of that is that it has become much more difficult to maintain synchronisation across the system, so it’s increasingly possible for the grid to fall over. For instance, when it comes to wind turbines you have to ramp control room generation up or down according to potential change in environmental conditions. The same goes for photovoltaic systems, for instance if there were to be a solar eclipse. A national energy network intended to be one-way is now two-way.”

Providers keep track of the complexities of modern energy production in the first instance through centralised monitoring of the grid itself. This involves sensor-based processes such as teleprotection, through which breakers can be automatically tripped if a fault is discovered. In the same way, an increasing number of grid edge solutions are also being used, such as real-time grid optimisation software and integrated distribution planning systems. This too is likely to trend upwards as the system becomes inevitably more predicated towards the user generating and storing their own energy, for instance via solar panel technology.

In terms of the use of voice and data by those on the ground, companies invariably employ a mixture of LTE-enabled smart devices, alongside more traditional DMR systems.

The latter are particularly important in remote areas, due to the reliability offered by two-way radio when 4G coverage isn’t available. According to Grilli, the majority of energy producers are still content to use MPT-1327, the analogue-based private radio protocol developed in the UK over 20 years ago.

“We like mature technology which is reliable and cost-effective in the long term,” he says. “You’re not going to switch to a fancy new PMR system just because someone says it’s the flavour of the month.”

Once in a decade
For Grilli and Couch, one further advantage of radio is that coverage can be configured according to where the need is greatest. With that in mind, what interest is there within the sector in rolling out private LTE networks, particularly given the ongoing development of increasingly voracious data-driven solutions?

“Utilities are certainly looking at private LTE as a viable option,” says Grilli, “particularly in the 400MHz space, which is where most of our telemetry and telecontrol sits already. We excel as an industry in building towers, so the infrastructure is pretty much already there in terms of coverage and backhaul.

“The key thing ultimately will be the business case – or to put it another way, can we do what we need to with what we’ve already got? Our requirements currently consist of things like controlling current, monitoring switch positions and so on, none of which involves the use of massive volumes of data. There may also be the need going forward for increased capacity when it comes to things like software updates.”

To further illustrate the point, Grilli outlines the potential use case, or lack thereof, for providing 24-hour video monitoring for infrastructure in out-of-the-way locations. While a great idea in principle, for him there are much easier ways to keep track of the situation on the ground using technology that is already widely deployed.

“A transformer may be hit by a tree branch on average once every 10 years,” he says. “Clearly then, we don’t need to visually keep track of each unit every minute of every day. Just give me a temperature update at regular intervals – something which we can already do – and that will suffice.”

Another issue for Grilli is security, something that comes as no surprise at a time when entire economies can be theoretically crippled via cyber attack. “As soon as you’re able to control the network remotely, it’s vulnerable,” he says in reference to the orchestrated disruption of the Ukrainian power supply in 2015.

“The scenario in which the British electricity grid is totally lost is known as Black Start. It’s estimated that it would take between five and seven days to properly rectify, assuming there was no damage to the infrastructure itself when the system went down.”

Lack of understanding
The utilities sector is in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in its history, particularly when it comes to the market’s increasing demands. Another point of concern for Grilli and Couch is UK policy-makers’ apparent lack of understanding regarding the needs of energy producers.

As might be expected, one of the highest items on JRC’s agenda is how spectrum availability could impact the development of new technology.

“As far as we can see, the focus of the government at the moment is entirely on the mobile industry and the generation of income for the Treasury,” Couch says.

“Obviously, that’s fine, but to establish systems of the future – certainly in the utilities sector – you need a diversity of spectrum available for other users. Energy producers are not speculators, and won’t invest in something where they might not see a return.”

He continues: “We’ve been engaged with Ofcom on this for a long time, particularly about the essential need for more spectrum in the 400 MHz band. Frankly, we haven’t made much progress, and there’s a danger now that we’re going to lag behind our European counterparts. That’s a real shame, because in the past the UK led the world.”

Pleasingly, one of the things that isn’t a concern to Couch is the impact on comms regulation once the UK has left the European Union.

There are a variety of reasons for this, not least that radio regulations, as overseen by organisations such as CEPT and the ITU, has a much broader scope than just the EU. The UK also shares cross-border power interconnectors with countries including Ireland, Belgium and France, something that isn’t likely to change no matter what its political status.

“The EU’s influence is mainly on public mobile communications and broadband,” says Couch. “We are keen to raise the profile of utility communications in this discussion.

“In terms of the impact of Brexit more broadly, I think the most fascinating development is the attempt to establish a UK industrial strategy. We haven’t had that for at least 30 years, and it’s fundamental if the United Kingdom is going to stand alone while at the same time remaining an economic force.”

To function properly, modern society requires a constant, reliable supply of electricity. It’s reassuring to know that people with the dedication of Grilli and Couch are working hard to make sure the power keeps on flowing.

CV – Adrian Grilli and Peter Couch
Adrian Grilli started out in the motor industry, before moving into government in a number of roles mainly related to trade and industry. He left after 17 years to head the newly formed Joint Radio Company Ltd, a joint venture between gas and electricity industries to manage their access to radio spectrum.

Dr Peter Couch holds a PhD from Birmingham University, an MBA from Warwick Business School, a BEng from Imperial College and is a Chartered Engineer. He has worked as vice chairman of Broadcast Networks Europe, as well as representing Arqiva for over 10 years on policy and regulatory matters both in the UK and in Europe. This included partnering with Ofcom to advise the UK government on the potential launch of local TV services, and leading outsourcing initiatives with mobile network operators.

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