Communications and the energy transition: Five key points from our webinar

Our recent webinar with Nokia asked whether telecoms infrastructure is the unsung hero of digitalisation and decarbonisation: a technology that underpins the energy transition but is perhaps somewhat lost in the mix.

With so many different factors and forces of change to contend with, utilities could be forgiven for taking telecoms networks for granted (when it comes to our mobile and fixed services, after all, that’s pretty much what we do).

But experts say complacency is dangerous. The goals of mobile network operators and the needs of the energy sector are not necessarily complementary, for one thing. Sunsetting of services such as 3G, for example, may mean energy companies having to replace their routers with 4G or 5G versions or adopting private networks – or risk comms being compromised as 3G is gradually phased out.

In Europe, some utilities have already successfully lobbied government for their own dedicated slice of communications spectrum, and there is potential for something similar in the UK. Right now, however, any special allocation of frequency for energy and water on these shores is no more than an idea.

In addition, the data communications networks which underpin utility operations also need to evolve beyond legacy technology, as energy providers look beyond the monitoring of hundreds of assets to hundreds of thousands. Network automation, and the enablement of IEC 61850, are given requirements in this scenario, and legacy technology standards based upon outdated merchant silicon won’t be around forever.

Unsung hero? Our panel of industry experts says it’s time telecoms took its place in the sun.

Here’s some of their key observations.


  1. Communications underpin digitalisation – and therefore net zero.

We all know digitalisation is essential to the transformation of the energy system. If you factor in that communications are likewise essential to digitalisation, by extension they are a critical part of reaching net zero (comms are crucial to enabling flexibility services, for example). Eric Brown, director of Grid Scientific, says we should be asking if we have “the communications infrastructure available to support and enable the energy transition we are trying to achieve”.

He adds: “There is a real risk communications will not be available with sufficient capability and resilience.” Brown also says there is a “degree of complacency” because of the ubiquity of mobile comms networks.


  1. Utility communications require resiliency beyond that provided by your typical mobile phone network.

SSEN says its comms networks are increasing in capability – from being essentially “supervisory” in character to providing real-time control of assets. In the event of a power outage at a mobile network, utilities can’t afford for systems to go down, points out Calum Jardine, operational technology standards manager for SSEN Distribution. “Your mobile phone will stop working in minutes, an hour at best. That isn’t a level of autonomy we can rely on.”

Dominique Verhulst, head of the energy segment at Nokia’s network infrastructure group, expands on the point: “If your commercial cellular service is hit by a power outage you will have an hour or two max of comms from that tower. Utilities need 72 hours of power autonomy. And commercial providers will not build infrastructure to those standards.”

Ironically, power companies are now much more reliant on the power supplied to communications networks. “We are moving from a position of being able to do without comms to comms being critical to how we provide power,” explains Jardine.


  1. Sunsetting of networks provides a real challenge to utilities.

There is a disconnect between the lifespan of mobile phone networks and the lifespan of substations and other infrastructure. Jardine explains: “Telecoms are replacing services every five years. We expect our systems to last 25 years. So we are frequently having to replace telecoms infrastructure well before (from our point of view) the end of design life.”

Verhulst adds: “We do see sunset of technology and it is hitting the utility industry hard, because if you look at a lot of the protection, automation and control systems that are still in service in the utility space, they rely on telecoms technology and interfaces that are several decades old.

“The silicon industry no longer manufactures the low-density wafers used by legacy telecoms systems, so we are confronted with problems. A lot of the devices in substations will no longer be available and we will be forced into a transition.”

Vincent Hay, strategy and standards engineer for UK Power Networks, says the shutdown of PSTN and ADSL networks is posing a challenge. “That has pushed us onto mobile networks. We are looking at how we can get similar levels of reliability out of other technology solutions: we’ve looked at Broadband Global Area Networks, for example.”

Low or near-Earth orbit satellites are also a potential remedy, Hay says. “They are developing at a really rapid pace so it’s about keeping your finger on the pulse of those types of solutions.”


  1. The UK has lagged Europe in lobbying for dedicated comms for energy.

In Germany, the government awarded the 450 MHz frequencies to critical energy and water infrastructure back in 2021. In Austria, utilities are also benefiting from the use of private LTE networks at 450 MHz. Security, reliability and not being subject to sunsetting of public communications infrastructure are key advantages of dedicated frequency.

“We want dedicated spectrum so there is some continuity of service that lasts the time utilities need,” Jardine says.

Verhulst adds: “In some countries the industry has gone to the regulator and said, ‘we have a major issue – if you want the energy transition to be successful, we need a failsafe, completely resilient, back-up wireless network’. We’ve also seen the lobby for access to spectrum in Germany – the whole industry came together as one.”

The National Energy System Operator has the potential to lead similar efforts in the UK, believes Brown of Grid Scientific.


  1. The challenge isn’t about bandwidth, it’s about connectivity.

Although Big Data is a factor, for utilities and networks, connectivity is a more pressing problem because of the sheer volume of assets and their geographical spread. SSEN Distribution, for instance, is tripling the number of substations that feature some form of communications connectivity. Or as Jardine says: “There is far more data flowing, but we are not a media organisation streaming huge amounts of high-definition video.

“For us the challenge is the sheer number of sites and reliability rather than bandwidth.”


Want more? Register now to watch Unsung hero: Connecting the grid, powering the future – how telecoms are enabling digitalisation, in association with Nokia, on demand.