Introduction to Unified Critical Communications
The Benefits of Unified Critical Communications
Benefits of Unified Critical Communications for Utilities
Utility companies face major challenges providing efficient and reliable electric power, water and gas services. Not only do they need to maintain large distribution networks, for which worker safety and cost are big concerns, but a changing marketplace with new diverse generation options, new demands (such as the support of electric vehicle charging), environmental and security issues, and shifts in demand patterns across domestic and business users mean that utilities need to become smarter.
They must become more responsive, more flexible, more efficient, safer, greener, and more cost-effective. Modern technology coupled with integrated communications can make this happen.
Utilities are moving to smart distribution systems through grid modernization by deploying smart meters and remote-control switches. These switches allow operators to monitor and control system operations from operations centers in real time, reducing the need to send crews to gather field data and operate devices on site.
Determining fault locations, which might otherwise take hours, can be dramatically reduced through smart grid applications that automate fault location, isolation and restoration (FLISR) and are integrated into advanced outage management and distribution management systems. Enhanced telemetry and automated analysis also make predictive maintenance possible.
The future of utilities is to use real-time monitoring and remote control of both the distribution and transmission networks to fully automate distribution. Fast, secure, ultra-reliable, high bandwidth communications are essential to make this future a reality.
With UCC the multiple network systems, which combine the capabilities of LMR, LTE, cellular, WiFi (even satellite for geographically remote locations) can offer distribution operators outstanding improvements in reliability and coverage over traditional radio-only communications. The ability to add new bearers such as 5G without impacting existing communications future-proofs the benefits gained by integrating communications now.
When crews are sent out for fault identification or maintenance, a communications advantage helps their situational awareness. They can arrive better informed by the outage management system, better equipped through automatic asset management, and better connected through UCC to deal with the situation at hand.
A UCC platform in the service vehicle brings reliable and resilient multi-device group communications to the field location and, via the backhaul, to the central office. Two-way voice consultation, the exchange of field data, images or videos with the operations center, and connectivity to power line sensors can speed up fault resolution and service restoration.
It also means that, field crews working in dangerous conditions are better protected through GPS/AVL, location tracking and automatic safety features built into their comms devices. For example, if a line worker is in danger and unable to manually call for help, automated safety features like Man Down and Lone Worker will immediately send an alarm to dispatch which will know where to render emergency assistance.
Smart metering presents another tool for real-time monitoring of system operations by collecting data on customer energy consumption and using built-in two-way communication to automatically transmit this information to a distribution operating center where it is processed for customer billing, outage management, and other operational purposes. Applications of smart metering include:
- Automated customer billing,
- Volt/VAR control (VVC) to automatically manage both reactive power (VAR) and voltage levels over the distribution network across diverse loading conditions,
- Conservation voltage reduction (CVR) without impacting customers, to reduce overall energy usage in the utility system by adjusting voltages dynamically,
- Demand response (DR), to enable customers to reduce or shift their electricity usage at peak periods in response to time-based rates or other forms of financial incentives,
- Load modeling and forecasting for assisting system operations and resource planning.
To gain these benefits, utilities will need to move beyond single-technology communications, not by abandoning their LMR investment, but by including it within an integrated communications solution.