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What’s On Smart Grid Communication Technologies?

Posted on: 10 January '12
Girish Deshpande
Technical Director - Industrial Systems and Smart Energy Group

The availability of robust communication technologies has transformed many industries such as TV, Radio, Internet and Airlines. Our aging electric grid is the last frontier that is now poised to undergo dramatic changes due to these smart technologies.

Why Smart technologies? Smart technologies allow for better control and monitoring of power, which translates into efficient consumption and distribution of energy. The advantage of smart grids compared to old electric grids is that it allows utilities to manage the flow of power through their systems while consumers can manage their appliances and use of energy at the household level.

The smart grid is a two-way transfer of energy and information. Smart grid devices monitor and control the entire energy chain from generation to consumption. This is achieved only if the devices are connected and can communicate their status with each other throughout this chain.

There are two kinds of smart grid technologies available namely wireline and wireless. Utilities can choose either one of the technologies depending on their unique needs and their existing infrastructure. A recent estimate lists that Wireline and wireless smart grid revenues are set to reach US$4.9 billion by 2016.

The wireline technologies available:

Power Line Communication (PLC) +
Although utilities use this over longer distances to send data, it is more often used inside the building to achieve load shedding in AMI. It uses the existing power lines so that, you save on the cables and structural modifications to the building. It is a low-cost and a reliable way to achieve two-way communications. But the drawback is low bandwidth and point-to-point communication. Although long distance communication is possible, it poses significant challenges, especially in developing countries where the disturbances on transmission lines cause issues.
Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) +
This technology transmits data over power lines (LV and MV) too, but at a higher bandwidth. The drawbacks associated with this are poor tolerance for noise in the line, limited deployments, poor interoperability, and lack of standards. Also the BPL products can cause electromagnetic interference.
Copper UTP +
This offers choice of an analog modem, DSL or T1 speed and is widely available. The utilities do not like this option because they do not own it. The continuing expense can be another drawback.
Optical Fiber +
This allows for secure and high-speed communication. But the installation costs are higher and it is point to point.
Internet Protocol (IP) +
This is ubiquitous, low in cost and open standard protocol. Both wire line and wireless technologies use this protocol. Some drawbacks associated are less reliability and security.
Fiber to the Home (FTTH) +
It has an unlimited bandwidth and is extremely fast, but the costs are higher.
Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC) +
It is fiber to the neighborhood or group of homes and coaxed into the home. It is not owned by utility, hence there is a lack of control.

The wireless technologies available:

MAS (Multiple Address System radio) +
The SCADA and DA applications in many countries use these radios to communicate. It is flexible, reliable and compact. It can handle obstructions better and is also point to multipoint communication. However, the limited bandwidth is a drawback.
Paging Networks +
This is used to send short messages to mobile devices. This is cost effective for one way messaging, although some standards exist. But the two way messaging can be expensive and most systems tend to be closed and proprietary.
Spread Spectrum Radio +
This radio uses unlicensed 902-928MHz spectrum. It is point to multi point communication and is good for last mile connection. The line of sight requirement and continuous frequency hopping are the associated drawbacks.
WiFi +
WiFi is Open Standards IEEE 802.11b and 802.11g. You can attain bandwidth from 5 to 54mbs. The big plus point is that, it has very high market penetration and many devices already use WiFi communication. The limited distance of 100 to 250m and poor reception in buildings are the main drawbacks.
WiMAX adheres to IEEE 802.16d communication standard. You can get up to 75 MBS bandwidth over 10 to 30 miles. This bandwidth is a savior when an environmental disaster strikes a densely populated area and all smart meters start communicating the outages at same time. WiMAX can handle this increased traffic and because of this, WiMAX can be an ideal backhaul medium for in-premise WiFi and zigbee devices. Higher cost and poor market adoption are major constraints at the moment.
ZigBee +
This uses IEEE 802.15.4 radio to communicate. It is a low cost and low power technology and uses unlicensed spectrum. Zigbee is gaining traction in the home energy market and multiple Zigbee enabled products are available in the market. Zigbee enables the smart meter to communicate with home appliances which helps to shed the load. Zigbee is constituted of mesh technology and this makes it more robust. Zigbee alliance has come up with Smart Energy profile (SEP 2.0) to ensure interoperability among home appliances but the limited distance and inability to penetrate concrete walls are major constraints.
3G Cellular +
This is a low cost solution to enable long-range communication both within the substation and from home to the substation. It can be rolled out quickly using the existing cellular infrastructure. Most smart meters in future will use this technology to communicate with the MDMS system. The constraint is, it can become unreliable if natural disaster strikes and takes out cellular infrastructure.
TDMA Wireless (Cellular) +
This is an Open IS-136 Standard, which was predominant in few countries. This technology has no future and is almost obsolete.
CDMA Wireless +
The current 2G system uses IS-95 Standard. It is widely available and is cost effective, but heavy traffic can overwhelm the network. One such scenario is the simultaneous and widespread outage reporting by smart meters.
This again is widespread across the globe and provides a very cost effective means to achieve AMI. Like CDMA, heavy traffic can prove to be overwhelming in this case as well.
VSAT Terminal +
This is widely used today for remote monitoring and control of transmission and distribution substations; proven and quick implementation. The cost is high and severe weather impacts the reliability.

Now we know why utilities are moving to smart grids. But what are the challenges? Is there a preferred smart technology as in wireless Vs wireline? Please do share your views.

Girish Deshpande

Girish Deshpande has 19 years of experience writing software and managing projects, programs and the industrial systems IG. Girish has managed projects that encompass technologies from open source, web applications, mobile applications, embedded products to testing. A majority of the projects managed by him have also been fixed priced turnkey projects with complex product development stages. Few of the projects Girish has worked on have also won the Chairman's award at Mindtree. Girish has done his engineering in computer science.

  • Harish

    Dear sir

    thanks for infromation.


    • Thanks Harish. I am glad you found the information useful.

  • Nicky Hewgill

    The summary of BPL is harsh. Thanks to the wider bandwidth available in the broadband spectrum it is easily possible to overcome issues of noise and interference.
    Where BPL has been deployed it has proven ideal for dense urban environments where wireless and GPRS struggle to peform.

    • Nicky,
      One place where Powerline communication is successful deployed is in Europe, relatively speaking, compared to rest of the world. In emerging nations the noise is big issue. Although dense population of homes justify investment in adapters (that allow jump over transformer from home to T&D lines). And using MV lines for data transfer looks cost effective solution. But the grid is not sophisticated enough to allow problem free transfer of data. Signals propagating along the power line are subjected to very large amounts of noise, frequency selective attenuation and distortions, many of which may vary with time. Power line communication may be difficult proposition in many emerging nations for AMI implementation. Even in country like US this may not be cost effective outside densely populated areas. Certain minimum cluster of homes are expected to share the concentrator and repeaters.
      This paper provides some additional details on noise issues with powerline communication.


  • Brajendra Rawat


    Smart grid is certainly the future, but it would be more interesting to see as how smart grids can minimise the transmission losses and perhaps can solve some of the issues in power deficit countries, unless smart grid answers these crucial questions, it will remain a bride for the west, who needs to invest in it because of more than one reasons.

    Kind Regards

    • I agree with you Brajendra. The smart grid is useful if it pays for itself. I think if it helps us cut down horrendous T&D losses in country like India then I would say it has paid off by avoiding putting more coal based power plants and avoiding CO2 emissions. On the other hand Microgid which is one type of Smart Grid architecture will allow us to use more eco friendly generating resources at local level with more control with local communities. Pl read this post for more details.

  • Brajendra Rawat

    Micro Grid will be able to solve problems in a sparsely located areas but in a country like India where population density is very high and will keep going up in foreseeable future, success of micro grid is highly doubted. It is a success in western countries because most of the towns don’t have the population more than 150,000 and they are located far away from high density generation plant, thus making grid more inefficient and more vulnerable to weather in winter and in gale wind conditions. Another major problem with Micro grid is ease of upgrading them and cost involved in that. In countries other than Asia and Africa population is on steep decline where as we are adding more population, in which case there is always a possibility that micro grid will run out of the capacity, and at present installation costs of solar plants and wind power plant is extremely high (though it is coming down rapidly and I believe Indian IT companies should build their expertise in this field too and not just in developing software but also through rolling out their own research initiatives.


    • Hi Brajendra,
      Microgrid is scalable and distributed architecture. Microgrids are being tried out for universities, military establishments, office complex, cities or regions. I don’t think growing population or rather scale would pose any problem. Although it may sound elitist and retrogressive in these times…every country need to ensure energy security and availability for nationally vital establishments…be it military, industrial, educational or political. Microgrids can safeguard these segments in any nation. Even in India, Microgrid will be far better, cost effective and environmentally friendly solution than every building using expensive and polluting diesel generators as a back-up.


  • Brajendra Rawat

    Definitely energy security is one of the most important aspect of national security and has been underlined by Government of India in various reviews too, Indian armed forces have been researching and using this concept for a long time now and I don’t think its an retrogressive idea at all. But to put technology in perspective vis-a-vis cost of installing and upgrading such systems, I find it rather hard to admit the success of micro grid in rather densely populated centres in India. No doubt it can be a big success in Sparse localities but considering the rising value of land in and around major economic centres across the country casts serious doubts over the runaway success of micro girds, however as I mentioned earlier too that they can definitely solve the acute energy crisis in remote regions, in fact in Kashmir and in Sikkim micro hydro power projects are in operation and are successful, and similarly in MP small scale wind power plants are in operation and are successful. Apart from that various industries generate their own power (e.g. Bajaj) and are happy and successful, but these have been in operation for more than a decade and are fairly popular too, but large scale implementation of such projects has not been possible, largely because of afore mentioned reasons, however off-grid generation of solar power has increased considerably and that in a way is the way to go for countries like India.


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  • Harish Chaudhari

    Dear Mr. Girish, ‎

    Good information about comm tech but I think complete AMR / AMI System is the ‎combination of diff comm tech like PLC + GSM /GPRS + RF for HDU ….. over all GSM / GPRS is ‎the most reliable for higher end comm but not possible for low end like single phase meter ‎rating 5-20A specially for India / Asian market. In this case LPRF + GSM / GPRS is the good soln. ‎PLCC is difficult in Indian scenario due to noise and attenuation levels is very high in Indian ‎utility, destitution system is not good for PLC comm.. ‎

    Harish Chaudhari

    • Girish Deshpande

      Hi Harish,
      I agree with you that there will be different communication technologies for different purposes. One technology is not likely to suffice. I also agree that PLC along distribution & Transmission lines will be difficult proposition in India.