The United States electric grid is comprised of multiple systems and power plants generating electricity, over 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines that connect thousands of energy generation plants to our homes and businesses across the country. For decades, utilities have owned and operated their own private, licensed, wireless networks and private land mobile radio systems (PLMR) to offer reliable communications to centralized generation stations, substations, motor operated switches, and more on the electric grid, creating a high level of reliability.

However, the energy world is changing rapidly from centralized power (e.g. large coal and gas fired plans) to distributed energy resources (DERs) like rooftop solar and wind. This shift has given us both the opportunity and corresponding need to improve the efficiency and reliability of our data communications networks. New robust, private licensed wireless networks will be needed to monitor and control grid operations ranging from the most dense to remote locations.

At my company, we refer to the incorporation of these new monitoring and control devices at scale as the Mission Critical Internet of Things. These new devices are changing all aspects of grid planning and operations, creating new network and device requirements for interoperability, cybersecurity, and the management of big data pulled from MC-IoT devices in the field.

Fortifying our grid with advanced communications

Most utility networks, going back over 60 years, were designed to use a serial protocol known as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. Given the limited bandwidth of wired telecommunications networks, the protocol was designed to communicate a lot of information in an efficient way. However, with the evolution of smart grids and DERs, there is a radical increase in the number of devices that need to be deployed, increasing the capacity needs of the network.

Existing systems now have to take into account added security and real-time control over these networks that did not exist at the time the original systems were developed. A recently disclosed denial of service (DoS) attack at an electric utility in the Western U.S. gave us a preview of the vulnerability of these networks. This was the first reported digital attack known to have impacted electrical grid operations in the United States and showed that the potential for disruption of mission critical networks is a legitimate concern. A December 2015 cyberattack on three Ukrainian distribution utilities is the first known global attempt to cause a blackout.

Indian electric grid
Power lines are seen in this representational image. Reuters

New approaches to grid intelligence

Using a commercial wired or wireless data network for mission-critical services may seem attractive, but this relinquishes most key network decisions to the commercial network provider, thus making it impossible to design application specific security, quality and reliability measures. In the example of the DoS attack, all devices attack a single target at the same time, normally with the goal of producing so much traffic that bandwidth is completely saturated, so that valid customer traffic doesn't get through. It's much more difficult to defend yourself against these multi-device attacks due to the volume of traffic involved and the amount of accessibility for any agent to meddle with public networks. Commercial networks do not typically guarantee service levels, which is often critical for utility systems.

Having the ability to maintain control over the network has been one of the key concerns of mission critical industries. The use of private, licensed wireless networks is emerging as the ideal solution to provide the connectivity and coverage that is needed. These private networks operate in FCC-protected licensed spectrum which are dedicated solely to mission critical operations, making them far more secure than commercial offerings.

Standards secure MC-IoT in the grid

In 2017, a promising solution for mission-critical data communications was introduced when the IEEE 802.16s wireless standard was ratified and published by the IEEE. The standard was a grassroots endeavor launched by electric utilities and other industries which were looking for a standard technology that could be used in narrower licensed channels accessible to industrial users. The standard was designed from the ground up for mission critical remote monitoring and control applications, not the consumer market.

With more and more data being required to be transmitted from field devices, the incorporation of intelligence and processing for utility networks at the edge will help reduce the amount of data that has to be transmitted back to the central operations center. Additionally, security applications can be executed at the edge, thereby preventing any malicious data or unauthorized device connecting to the network.

These standards coupled with the emerging use of private, wireless networks enable the mission critical industries to implement real-time monitoring and control, effectively provide greater security for and reliability of the electric grid.

Martin Paget is vice president of industrial solutions at Ondas Networks, a wireless networking company.