Accustomed to our electric lamps, we often forget that for a large portion of human history the only way to produce light was to set something on fire. In the 19th century, public illumination in the world’s biggest cities was obtained via gas or oil lamps spread around the streets; every day, someone had to light them. That was the job of the lamplighters. Carrying a long torch and sometimes a ladder, a lamplighter was a person employed to light public oil lamps in the evening and extinguish them in the morning. Responsible for several streetlamps, one lamplighter could take hours to finish their daily tasks. Later, with the advent of electricity, the job of thousands of lamplighters was suddenly performed by a few people flipping switches. Now relays and sensors have even replaced those.
Automation continues to be a trend in the energy and utility sector, especially with the development of smart grid technologies. The routing of a resource through a utility network involves adjusting electricity, water or gas flow in many stages. Taking water distribution as an example, strategically positioned valves control the water pressure in entire cities, neighbourhoods or houses. Water restrictions could be managed across an entire distribution network by slightly reducing the pressure to all users while avoiding the shut-down of a subset of them, for example. To do that, however, distribution nodes must be well coordinated. If an intelligent valve receives real-time data from water pressure sensors located in end-users’ houses, it can adjust itself to provide the appropriate water flow. In addition, if it can communicate and coordinate with other valves, it can also make sure that good service levels are maintained throughout the network. Similar examples exist for electricity and gas distribution.
Sensors and actuators that can measure and respond to real-time fluctuations, automated metering, and electronic conditioning and control provide levels of optimisation that were not previously possible. By automatically adjusting a utility network, smart grid technologies can reduce waste and optimise distribution. All these benefits have a significant environmental advantage, decreasing our energy, water and gas consumption. Even the amount of electronic waste we produce can be reduced by smart grids; they allow for higher quality energy, reduce the chances of power surges and outages and, consequently, increase the lifetime of electronics and appliances. Furthermore, smart metering can help operators identify and pinpoint irregular use of the network, be it illegal connections to the energy grid or water theft. Smart grids also increase competition in the utility sector and the transparency in service cost, allowing for better price segmentation and encouraging operator switching. Tied to artificial intelligence and blockchain innovations, they can revolutionise the utility market.
The future of electricity, water, waste and gas networks is one of thousands of connected devices monitoring and managing local indicators to produce an improvement in performance globally. To realise that future, however, reliable communications between these devices is paramount. Many technologies have come to address the problem of smart grid communications, including 5G, Wi‑Fi, LoRaWAN, power-line communications and others. However, all wireless communications technologies need spectrum, which utility operators obtain through a few different methods: working with third-party providers, employing mobile operators’ solutions or self-licensing.
Since utilities require a high level of reliability and resilience, operators often prefer to self-licence their own spectrum. When compared to using a mobile operator solution, self-licensing provides a quicker response time when the communications network presents some form of outage. Instead of relying on an external service provider, self-licensing allows for utility operators to also operate their own communications network. Considering that it is not always economically viable for mobile operators to provide services with such rigorous requirements, self-licensing of spectrum is a way for utility network operators to deploy their own flexible and cost-effective communication networks.
Of course, spectrum licensing requires regulation. Combined with low demand from consumers, uncertainty about the level of regulatory support can slow down the adoption of smart grid technologies and delay their much-needed benefits. The world has seen a few national and regional initiatives in this direction. The Irish Commission for Communications Regulation awarded the smart grid and utility sector with 6 MHz of UHF spectrum in November 2019. Through a competitive bidding process, ESB Networks DAC was licensed to use the band for communications in their electricity network. In the Netherlands, DSO Alliander has acquired 450 MHz spectrum from telecom operator KPN and is collaborating with KPN to roll out a 450 MHz wireless network. More than that, the European Utilities Telecom Council has pushed for spectrum identification for smart grid communications in UHF, VHF and 1.3 GHz bands in Europe.
However, the ITU Radio Regulations still have no identification for this type of application, and global harmonisation is far from imminent. Report ITU-R SM.2351-2 lists frequency bands used for wireless power grid management systems worldwide, mentioning entirely different bands, from UHF to unlicenced spectrum. From those, very few are used globally or even regionally. It is well known that harmonisation fosters device standardisation and technology adoption, as well as having the potential to globalise the energy market and increase competition. Given the urgency of the fight against climate change, industry, regulators and the ITU should make this a priority in the coming years. It is evident that, much like the lamplighters, the smart grid sector has an arduous but important task ahead of them.