5G Brings Deterministic, Security, and Network Slicing to Smart Grids

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By Jake Saunders | 4Q 2021 | IN-6349

5G can help support a versatile and reliable smart grid communications infrastructure.

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Energy Resource Management Becoming More Complex


Previously, ABI Research has highlighted growing interested in smart grids (IN-6336) and the role they can play to make a country’s energy supply more streamlined, flexible, and responsive to a more complex mix of energy sources. The electrical grid may have to load balance between renewables, such as wind, solar, and/or tidal, and baseline energy supplies, such as nuclear gas or oil. That flexibility will be necessary as end users migrate away from diesel/petrol engine vehicles to electric vehicles, demanding the management of electrical power to be dynamically responsive.

How 5G can Benefit Smart Grids


5G can help support a versatile and reliable smart grid communications infrastructure. Smart grid communication links need to:

  • Monitor the network in real time using Internet of Things (IoT) modules.
  • Implement automatic fault isolation and power recovery in non-fault areas.
  • Enable the smart grid to locate and isolate faults based on the difference between input and output electrical current.

Differentiated 5G Deterministic Network

Smart grids, however, do raise the bar for connectivity within the electrical infrastructure domain. Key requirements include:

  • Constant Uplink Traffic Bearing Capacity– Assuring constant uplink capacity is critical for differential electrical protection. Each protection terminal sends its measurement data to and receives data from the peer end. The terminal compares the sent and received data to determine whether a fault has occurred and whether it needs to isolate the fault.
  • Network Latency and Jitter– For an electrical network, network latency is defined as ‘service execution duration’ minus ‘service processing duration’. The network communication link’s latency can contribute significant overhead to the service processing duration. Smart grid managers are aiming to deliver a differential electrical protection duration of 25 ms.
  • Packet Loss Rate– If a protection terminal fails to receive packets from the peer end for three or more consecutive intervals, the terminal determines the line to be faulty. This results in the protection terminal being disabled and an alarm signal is sent to the network operations center for further investigation.
  • Clock Synchronization– Multiple components in the power system have built-in clocks. These clocks, however, are rarely synchronized due to arbitrary initial values or timing drift which can have an impact on electric power services. Within the power distribution network, 10 μs or less time synchronization accuracy is required.
  • Channel Availability– Power distribution networks have a significant requirement for channel availability as the availability of the communication channel determines whether electrical differential protection can operate reliably.
  • Non-IP Transmission– The smart grid’s communications links need to be able to support not just Internet Protocol (IP) but also non-IP transmissions, such as IEC 61850. These different multicast groups require their own multicast Media Access Control (MAC) addresses and Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs). 5G has the advantage where the CPE, radio access network, and core network can support 5GLAN and multicast communication based on VLANs and multicast MAC addresses.

Partitioning and Authentication

Critical infrastructure has to be protected from malware and security threats. 5G can support additional vertical and horizontal layers:

  • Secure Partitioning– Production control domain and the management information domain are kept on separate partitions.
  • Dedicated Networks– A collection of independent network devices is kept on a dedicated channel. This isolation strategy keeps the control domain separate from other communication networks and the public network.
  • Horizontal Isolation– A horizontal, and unidirectional, security isolation terminal is implemented between the production control domain and the management information domain.
  • Vertical Authentication– Vertical encryption and authentication devices are deployed between the production control area and the WAN.

Electrical Power Suppliers Require Self Determination

Smart grids are therefore inherently complex network architectures that require considerable control over the communications layers. To achieve this, Electrical Power Suppliers require End to End (E2E) network slicing and dedicated edge computing:

  • Development of Network Slices– Electric power suppliers, telecoms, and other enterprises in the energy supply chain will need to customize and design “network power slice” solutions. This will help formulate the necessary service slice type, quantity, service area, slice capacity, bandwidth, and Service Level Agreement (SLA) requirements.
  • Edge Computing (EC) Customization– EC can further enhance security and isolation by enabling a dedicated user plane through the implementation of VPNs. Having a dedicated, manageable, and controllable EC network allows the electrical power supplier to monitor subscriber quantity, traffic volume Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and customer failure notification metrics.

Investment in Smart Grid Digitalization is Picking up


The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that while there has been gradual year over year contraction in overall energy infrastructure spending, energy grids have become more decentralized and digitalized. The latest reported yearly data, 2019, showed a 7% reduction to US$271 billion. However, smart grid infrastructure spend has stayed constant at around US$20 billion from 2017 to 2019. Crucially, the digitalization share of the energy supply has been growing from 11% in 2015 to 17% in 2019. This investment profile is telling. Overall investment in the energy infrastructure is constrained by government regulatory limits and the current uncertain economic and COVID-19 influenced climate. Governments, energy suppliers, and planners will need to ensure the much-needed investment is prudently spent and current, and just as important, that future energy sources are effectively managed. 5G-enabled smart grids can play a vital role in this process.

5G has several technical features that can not only connect and monitor electrical equipment but also provide latency, high reliability, and secure communications. Investment in smart grids is not just taking place in Asia but also in Europe and in North America. ABI Research anticipates these 5G-enabled investments in smart grids will accelerate.



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