Grid Modernization

The Network within the Network

Without electricity, there are no electronic communications, and without electronic communications, there is no electricity. Let me explain.

Even the most basic communications platform in the early history of the technology — the telegraph — does not work without harnessing electrical current. In the years following the buildout of the telegraph infrastructure, Thomas Edison (who was a telegraph operator as a young man) and Nikola Tesla, among others, worked to harness electrical current in lightbulbs and in power plants and distribution grids. Once such electric infrastructure was developed, communications networks became integral to enabling grid operators and field workers to communicate with each other as they performed routine inspections and maintenance and when troubleshooting potential problems and restoring power after outages.

After the buildout of electric grids and landline communications networks to residential customers was (mostly) completed by the mid-20th century, things stayed pretty much steady state until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when breakthroughs in communications technology enabled what became known as “digital communications.” The advent of digital communications meant that packets of information, rather than merely sound, could be transmitted over communications networks. Communications networks were originally wired and eventually became a combination of wired and wireless (Guglielmo Marconi first successfully deployed wireless communications across the Atlantic in 1901).

Over time, the communications networks needed to enable full digital technology required more bandwidth — fiber optic cable provided the wired version of that extra bandwidth, and wireless equipment that could access more robust and naturally occurring radio-spectrum bands complemented the wireline backbone.

As the full implications of digital communications became more evident, applicable, and affordable in the 1980s, utilities began to deploy technologies to take advantage of the greater efficiency, speed, and situational awareness it afforded — supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA, and digital relays are the major examples during this initial era. Fast forward to today, and digital communications networks, powered by electricity, enable advanced metering infrastructure, sensors, drones, and other utility technologies. These enhanced digital communications and data flows are also what allow us to integrate renewables and distributed energy resources onto the grid without compromising reliability. Communications networks and electric grids are now even more intertwined than they were in their mutual infancy.

Why focus on this history when this issue of Public Power magazine is about utility transformation today? Two reasons:

  1. Understanding communications networks is foundational to understanding other technology and capabilities of the utility of the future. Whether you own and run them yourselves or rely on communications carriers, I encourage you and your teams to make it a priority to understand how communications networks interact with your electric system at a granular level. This understanding will enable more “eyes wide open” strategic decisions as digitalization continues and will result in efficiency gains and flexibility that allow for the different types of transformation discussed in this issue.
  2. Security should be a focus in any transformation, and a major part of understanding communications networks relates to the security of the grid. Often, your corporate networks, such as your billing systems and websites, are internet facing. You might use a third party’s network to enable those functions, and if so, it means that you don’t have control over the security of that network, even if you are doing your due diligence to protect your part of it. For operational technology, such as SCADA, utilities often deploy their own “private” networks that are walled off from the external internet and instead function like an intranet. While there are challenges with completely securing those private OT networks, at least the system is managed by the utility, with known perimeters and infrastructure, rather than a third party. Regardless of your posture, the cybersecurity of these networks is of major consequence.  

As you undergo digitalization to transform your operations, enhance your interactions with customers, and respond to climate change mitigation goals, I encourage you to pay attention to the transformation of communications networks. As history has shown, both industries will continue to move forward together.