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Electricity grid monitoring and management communication - flexible, scalable, highly reliable.

9/18/2019

Introduction

The demands placed on electricity grid operators by their customers, suppliers and regulators are ever more challenging. A major challenge is to reduce urban and total pollution. Obligations to increase the use of renewable energy sources and electric vehicles and to reduce energy consumption force them to automate the complex and extensive distribution grid. Grid operators are now upgrading their monitoring and management systems to ensure resilience and reliability whilst balancing generation and demand. Part of the infrastructure necessary to support such automation and control is the wide area communication system to link together all the important points in the grid. Advantech has recently provided a complete grid monitoring communications solution for a major distribution system operator (DSO). The solution ensures high reliability, easy expansion, security, simple installation and, critically, scalability: the ability to roll out hundreds, even thousands of systems as easily as the first ten.

The Customer - A Major DSO

One particular DSO needed to upgrade their grid management communication system to maintain their high electricity supply security over 99.9% and try to reach 99.99%, less than 1 hour a year for each customer. They have over half a million customers and 100,000km of cables.

The Challenges

The DSO needed to upgrade their existing telecommunications infrastructure to reflect the demands being placed on electrical grids: ensure high reliability communications to various substations, switching stations, interconnect sites and distribution locations. Initially the project was for a thousand remote sites, but plans exist to grow this to 5,000 sites over the next decade. A major decision on whether to use wired or cellular communications was taken. Many of the sites identified for connection are remote and wired connection would be both difficult to implement and to maintain. It was therefore decided to operate a fully-wireless solution. Availability would be critical. The wireless solution needed to offer a high degree of resilience and, in addition, specific high priority sites, for example the switching stations and substations, needed even greater availability. When operational, the whole system needed monitoring to ensure system performance and availability.

Security is also paramount, the communications solution would need to support a robust cyber security protocol that would protect the network and conform to the most stringent security audits for critical infrastructure. Lastly, there was the major issue of installation and provisioning. The solution had to be simple and easy for their field engineers to install, without any special training on device configuration or commissioning.



Advantech's Proposal

Three different Advantech wireless routers would be deployed to provide the connectivity for grid monitoring: For the high priority stations, an Advantech SmartMotion router would be deployed, offering two simultaneously-active cellular connections from two different providers with two different SIMs. This would ensure the highest possible availability. Additionally, a wired connection to a satellite (VSAT) link was also deployed at these high priority sites to provide a failsafe link. The SmartMotion router would therefore provide three differing communications links to the central monitoring sites. For the lower priority sites, and depending on the physical connections to the local monitoring systems, either a SmartStart or SmartFlex router would be deployed offering one active cellular connection but again utilizing dual SIM cards to allow failover to the backup operator in case of availability issues with the primary operator. Ensuring physical communication was one challenge, but bigger challenges were security, monitoring, managing and provisioning the network. Each physical site would communicate via dual encrypted links with two central management sites. Additionally, the health of the routers at remote sites would be monitored via the popular Zabbix software to ensure that the agreed service level agreement (SLA), would be met. Advantech’s software development team modified the standard router software to support two active encrypted links using SCEP - Simple Certificate Enrollment Protocol to ensure regular certificate renewal, integrating the routers into an SNMP-based Zabbix monitoring system to provide the necessary data for SLA monitoring. Advantech proposed to meet the challenge for simple installation with an zero-touch provisioning system which automatically linked the router on first power-up to our central management system. This would avoid any need for configuration on-site, minimise errors and therefore would lower installation costs. Advantech proposed to use WebAccess/DMP, its provisioning application. WebAccess/DMP, which offers a full suite of deployment and management tools: Zero Touch Deployment, Site Specific Configuration and an additional layer of monitoring and diagnostics. WebAccess/DMP can be cloud based, but with the stringent security requirements demanded by an operator of critical infrastructure an on-premise version was deployed so ensuring the entire network, including the data, management and device provisioning and maintenance, was “air-gapped” from the public Internet.

Implementation

This challenging distribution grid operator trusted Advantech to provide its resilient and secure wireless communications network. Advantech's proposed solution helped it to roll out communications systems in a thousand substations over the course of a year without a hitch, proving the value of the simplified installation process. Service in the field is proving the value of the redundant communication channels.

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