Jeffrey Casey, UK business development director, Burns & McDonnell. Energy networks, Energy retail, Generation, Innovation, Policy & regulation, Technology, Opinion

Effective communications are vital if the UK is to achieve a carbon-free future, and utilities’ communication platforms must be flexible enough to satisfy different energy scenarios.

There is much speculation about “disruption” in the energy industry. Savvy consumers are adopting new technologies and increasingly engaging in the marketplace.

eanwhile, regulations are squeezing utilities. As we know, the government is attempting to steer much of this change in the form of Professor Dieter Helm’s energy costs review and its recent Road to Zero strategy – demonstrating its commitment to a cost-efficient, low-carbon future for the UK.

But a vital element in the debate is not getting the attention it deserves and new thinking is required. That element is communications systems.

We know that all three elements of the energy trilemma must be addressed if the UK is to make progress in its continued drive to become the world leader in zero-carbon energy technologies. Communications link all conventional and emerging power technologies, and will ensure we can do just that. Indeed, I would argue that communications systems will be the factor that determines how rapidly change occurs.

There is discussion about communications, but most focuses on either solutions that are proven but old, or on outsourcing communications platforms to third parties – and losing control of critical infrastructure.

In today’s mission-critical environment of real-time data transfer, communication is essential to keeping the lights on. As utilities offer greater reliability, more sustainability and better customer service – communications will enable them to be more efficient and effective at providing service.

A fully integrated and intelligent grid that offers a way to control production and consumption of energy in real time requires an advanced communications system. This must seamlessly support the integration of distributed generation sources to help provide energy security, affordability and sustainability – addressing the trilemma.

To go further, if utilities get this right, communications could mitigate the impact of disruptive forces that could eventually lead to the extinction of the traditional utility business model. Efficient and forward-thinking management of advanced communications systems could put utilities in control of the distribution system operator (DSO) transition, keeping them in prime position as integral players in the future of energy in the UK. In the near term, these systems can help utilities prepare for RIIO2 and evidence success under the current regime as Ofgem’s latest requirements become better understood.

Communications technologies run the gamut in maturity and applicability for utilities. However, current communications platforms and technologies used throughout much of the UK will be out of date, overextended and/or increasingly inefficient in the not-too-distant future. It is possible we could be limiting our abilities to deliver services and capabilities if we use only those communications technologies and systems we are comfortable with.

As the grid evolves into a platform that can detect, accept and control decentralised production assets as well as consumption (controlling the time at which electric vehicles may charge, for example), communication systems must be equally sophisticated to allow information to flow as needed in multiple directions. This requires a holistic, ubiquitous communication platform that enables operation of a power system as a whole, rather than on a per-device basis.

Also, advanced communications systems must be designed to be cyber-secure, reliable, resilient, cost effective and scalable.

Power delivery must be protected by layered, “defence in depth” security strategies. Cybersecurity must be built into all equipment and devices because the network is only as strong as its weakest link.

Reliability must be protected through communication links that are engineered as a well-optimised network with layered network architecture differentiated for low, medium and high voltages. This will be technically challenging because of differences in geography, topology, climate and asset density.

Resilience must be addressed through a communications network that is hardened for the environment devices will live in. Factors such as extreme temperatures, electromagnetic interference, dust and vibration can kill sensitive technologies if they are not designed to survive in those conditions. Utilities must have the responsibility and the authority to restore their systems when they have been disrupted.

Systems must also be designed to justify costs. A business case must be developed for any use of communication technologies, and if a particular technology does not provide clear benefits to end users, it should not make the cut. However, this will not be a one-size-fits-all exercise. Applications and use cases will be different so a variety of needs must be accommodated.

Finally, new applications and services must be enabled by the platform that exists today, as well as where the industry is poised to go in the future. We may only have a projected idea of what the future platform will look like, so systems should not be based on proprietary protocols and services. Rather, they must have the flexibility to allow new applications to be bolted on at the edge of a system we may only be able to loosely imagine today.

There are many trending topics that will affect utilities both positively and negatively. Without doubt, the evolution of future communications platforms towards a more sophisticated flexible system must be at the heart of our industry’s thinking.