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Addressing Utility Field Area Network Interoperability

Jeremy Laundergan, Vice President of Consulting Services, EnerNex

We take it for granted. Being able to connect our devices, computers and gadgets to a Wi-Fi network is fairly straightforward and routine. We have a new device or we are traveling, so we identify a Wi-Fi network, which is either publicly available or has security credentials, and then we type in the password or accept the terms of service in order to connect to the Wi-Fi network and access the local domain network (intranet) and/or the Internet.

At the core of this convenience is the ability (or interoperability) of devices from different manufacturers to communicate over the Wi-Fi network with the testing and certification governed by the Wi-Fi Alliance. The IEEE 802.11 standard is the foundation of Wi-Fi and interoperability is ensured through Wi-Fi Alliance certification testing, which verifies the ability to communicate with other Wi-Fi devices.

Utility Field Area Networks (FANs) are often based on a mesh networking standard (IEEE 802.15.4g) where each device (or node) on the network can relay a signal thereby improving the range of the network as the data or message is transmitted from one device to the other. As the mesh grows, the bandwidth and latency can be improved as needed by deploying more field area routers (aka takeout points or collectors) to keep the ratio of devices per router achieving the desired performance.

Utility FAN mesh networking gained popularity in the utility industry with Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) deployments starting a little over a decade ago. Currently, around half of the electric meters in the U.S. are considered smart meters. Unfortunately, the corresponding mesh networks have lacked interoperability and instead have utilized vendor proprietary protocols implemented on top of the IEEE 802.15.4g standard.

As a result, utilities have either had vendor lock-in with whichever company supplied their AMI network, or utilized a supplier with a network interface card (NIC) that can be installed in products from other manufacturers with a compatible NIC slot or an agreement with the FAN telecoms network provider.

As utilities progress from smart grid use cases to broader grid modernization initiatives, the utility FAN requirements become more focused on multi-use in order to support both advanced metering and field devices, such as line sensors, Volt/VAR controllers, and distribution switches. Because these devices are manufactured by a variety of suppliers, the proprietary FAN approach or utilization of a proprietary NIC becomes untenable, as each manufacturer would need to reach an agreement with the company that owns the proprietary NIC in order to enable FAN interoperability with different supplier devices.

Wi-SUN Alliance is aiming to achieve true interoperability between different devices from different manufacturers ensured through the Wi-SUN testing and certification process. Many of the big suppliers to the utility industry have joined Wi-SUN Alliance, but much more utility and supplier participation is needed if the utility industry is to achieve utility FAN interoperability.

Through our continuing work with the National Institute of Standards and Technology as well as multiple standards development and global member organizations, like Wi-SUN Alliance, EnerNex continues to provide expertise to support an interoperable future grid for our utility clients.

To learn more, listen to The Energy Exchange podcast featuring Wi-Sun’s @pebeecher and EnerNex’s @RonChebra on accelerating standardization and interoperability, here: http://bit.ly/EnerNexEp11.