The European utility industry faces significant challenges as it grapples with an evolving energy landscape and the corresponding need for modernisation, sustainability, and ever-increasing efficiency. Utilities are faced with climate change concerns, the integration of renewable energy sources and the electrification of transportation are driving a profound transformation of traditional power grids.
In this context, smart grid technologies have become a vital tool to improve grid efficiency, reliability and environmental impact, and as smart grid technologies become increasingly prevalent, so the demand for robust and reliable communication for utilities has intensified.
As 2G and 3G networks become obsolete and are withdrawn by cellular operators, the area of the radio spectrum in which they operate becomes available for other applications. One such part of the spectrum is the 450 MHz band, which was set aside as a low frequency path for emergency communications in these earlier implementations. LTE450, by bringing the benefits of LTE communication methodologies but operating in the vacated 450 MHz frequency band has emerged as a promising choice to meet the communication requirements of the European utility sector. With its extended coverage, resilience and support for Internet of Things (IoT) applications, LTE450 presents a compelling communications option for utility companies, enhancing grid management, and contributing to a more sustainable energy future in Europe.
The advantages of LTE450 for utilities
When considered against more widely adopted and generally available cellular options, LTE450 offers several distinct advantages which make it particularly attractive for M2M and IIoT applications in the utility sector.
Enhanced coverage and penetration
Compared to higher frequency bands which form the basis of generally available public 4G/5G networks, such as LTE700, LTE1800 and especially 3.5 GHz with 5G radio access networks, LTE450 offers superior coverage and penetration. This is simply due to the laws of physics, which dictate that the lower the frequency of a radio transmission, the further it will travel for the same input power. The 450 MHz spectrum, therefore, allows signals to travel over longer distances, making it suitable for reaching remote and rural areas. Additionally, the technology’s better penetration capabilities enable reliable communication within buildings and underground facilities, improving overall communication efficiency. Furthermore, the 450 MHz band allows for this much wider geographic coverage without the need for the mobile network operator to commit significant capital expenditure to site acquisition and base station backhaul network infrastructure.
Resilience and reliability
The utility industry requires high levels of reliability, particularly during critical events such as natural disasters or emergencies. LTE450’s operation at lower frequencies enhances signal robustness, making it less susceptible to interference and ensuring dependable communication networks. In times of crisis or network congestion, this resilience becomes invaluable for utilities to maintain efficient grid management and deliver uninterrupted services. Indeed, because of the need for specific radio hardware, differing from that found in general cellular devices such as smartphones, the chances of network congestion are, in any case, significantly reduced, simply because of the ‘specialist’ application implicit in an LTE450 deployment and the lower contention ratio this implies.
Secure and private networks
Security is of paramount importance in the utility sector, protecting critical infrastructure and customer data. LTE450 leverages the security features, including encryption and authentication protocols, found in public LTE networks to safeguard data transmission. Moreover, the option to operate LTE450 deployments as private networks gives utilities potential for even greater control over their communications to not only offer different/superior levels of end-to-end security but just as crucially, to be optimised for priority and pre-emption. This increased control allows mitigation of the risk of cyberattacks.
Support for IoT applications
As the utility industry embraces IoT devices for grid optimisation, LTE450’s capability to connect a massive number of remote devices, with support for both broadband LTE and CAT-M/NB-IoT technologies, proves highly beneficial. This capability enables the implementation of various smart grid applications, such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution automation, and demand response systems. By leveraging IoT capabilities, utilities can enhance grid management, optimise resource allocation, and improve overall energy efficiency.
Challenges hindering the adoption of LTE450
Spectrum availability and regulations
The availability of the 450 MHz spectrum varies across European countries due to different regulatory frameworks and existing users in the band. Harmonising spectrum allocation for utility-specific LTE450 deployments remains a challenge, and utilities may face competition from other industries for access to this spectrum. The 450 MHz spectrum has however already been allocated for utility use in a number of European countries.
Interoperability and legacy systems
Migrating legacy devices onto an LTE450 based infrastructure involves the same challenges as migration to any other IP based communications network. This is compounded by the number of legacy field devices deployed in utility applications which still have a useful active service life but which use proprietary protocols and may not be able to support direct connection to an IP based communications network. Ensuring interoperability between LTE450 and legacy technologies is crucial to minimise disruptions during the transition phase. Here, the use of intelligent edge gateways, able to interface to both LTE450 and the legacy devices, and to translate between protocols and data representations is therefore key to successful migration.
Regulatory compliance and standards
Meeting regulatory requirements and adhering to industry standards is essential for ensuring the successful deployment of LTE450 in the utility sector. Utilities must navigate through various compliance guidelines and technical specifications to ensure the smooth functioning of their LTE450 networks. Indeed, promoting interoperability and standardisation of LTE450 solutions is essential to ensure seamless integration with existing utility infrastructures and support future advancements. Collaboration between equipment manufacturers and utilities can contribute to the establishment of standardised practices. Further still, given the complexity of utility operations and the diverse requirements of different regions, a collaborative approach involving utilities, telecommunication companies, and regulatory bodies is necessary. Joint efforts can streamline spectrum allocation, share best practices, and establish standards for LTE450 deployment across Europe.
These challenges are being positively addressed by the 450 MHz Alliance, an industry association representing stakeholders in the 450 MHz spectrum. The members of the alliance include wireless carriers, equipment manufacturers, and companies in various vertical markets for machine-to-machine communication. Their goal is to provide representation in industry and regulatory bodies, taking regulatory positions and setting industry standards. Through specific, goal-oriented working groups, and the publication of guidelines and processes, they aim to facilitate coordination of the supply and demand of 450 MHz equipment to drive economies of scale, and to support the development of new business models.
How LTE450 can positively impact utility performance
Enhanced grid management and monitoring
Utilities, when compared to other M2M applications, typically serve vast and diverse geographic areas, and with this come obvious challenges in connecting, monitoring and managing remote assets. By deploying LTE450 communication networks, utility operators can enhance their real-time data collection capabilities, enabling better grid monitoring and fault detection. This can lead to faster response times during outages, resulting in improved customer satisfaction and enhanced grid resilience.
Efficient demand response implementation
One of the transformative changes taking place within distribution networks is the increase in their symmetry. Historically, distribution was about moving energy from large, centralised power plants out to the consumer. Today however, consumers are also small-scale generators, and increasingly are looking to export excess capacity to the grid. Critical to the future success of this model will be the ability for DSOs to gain real time visibility of the status of all these micro end points in order to calculate the available capacity on a second-by-second basis. Further, suppliers are beginning to introduce novel tariffs where consumers receive beneficial rates in return for surrendering control of when appliances run, allowing suppliers to adjust demand to match the available capacity. This implies significantly more bi-directional, real-time transfer of information than has been necessary in the past. Leveraging LTE450 to implement demand response programs can enable customers to actively participate in load management. Through IoT enabled devices, utility operators can communicate with consumers, monitoring energy generation and adjusting energy consumption during peak hours to optimising grid utilisation. This results in reduced strain on the grid and better demand forecasting, leading to cost savings and reduced carbon emissions.
Future applications of LTE450 in the utility sector
As technology advances, LTE450 is likely to play a crucial role in enabling emerging applications such as distributed energy resource management, electric vehicle integration, and grid-edge computing. These applications will further enhance the efficiency and resilience of utility networks. Critical to this process is the ability to seamlessly migrate legacy devices and systems over to the new communications topology, and the key component in this process is the LTE450-enabled intelligent edge gateway. Advantech offers ready to use solutions to this requirement in the form of its ICR-2412 and ICR-2437 edge gateways.
The European utility industry is at a critical juncture where the adoption of advanced communication solutions is essential for modernising power grids and improving overall efficiency. LTE450 represents a transformative communication technology that can revolutionise the European utility industry. Its extended coverage, enhanced reliability, and support for IoT applications make it an attractive option for modernising utility grids. Although challenges exist, collaborative efforts, pilot projects, and regulatory support are driving the widespread adoption of LTE450, enabling utilities to revolutionise smart grid communications and pave the way for a sustainable energy future in Europe. The journey towards efficiency and resilience in the utility industry lies in embracing innovative technologies like LTE450, ensuring a brighter and greener future for generations to come.
The author, Tim Taberner is the Technical Sales Director at Advantech IIOT.