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NRECA Study Tracks Smart Grid Technology Adoption by Utility Co-ops

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Co-ops nationwide are addressing evolving data needs to ensure cost-effective operations for members. The recent experience of six electric co-ops that upgraded their telecommunications infrastructure to support smart grid technology is providing direction and insight. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association published this article:

“Telecommunications: The Linchpin for Smart Grid Success,” an article published by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s (NRECA) Cooperative Research Network (CRN), offers lessons from the experiences of six cooperatives that upgraded their telecommunications infrastructure to support new smart grid applications.

The TechSurveillance article is the first in a series of articles on the results of NRECA’s Smart Grid Demonstration Project (SGDP), a $68 million project supported by the Department of Energy that deployed and evaluated an array of smart grid technologies at 23 cooperatives in twelve states.

A fully-implemented smart grid generates a data volume that is between 10,000 and 100,000 times larger than traditional utility operations. Member-owned, not-for-profit electric co-ops face unique hurdles in meeting the communication requirements needed to support technologies such as smart feeder switching, demand response over AMI, pre-paid metering and grid-interactive thermal storage. Rural areas served by electric co-ops lack universal coverage by cellular or fiber optic communications; radio signal strength can be spotty or nonexistent; telecommunication costs are typically higher because of distances involved; and service area terrain can interfere with line-of-sight communications systems. As not-for-profit utilities, cost often becomes another hurdle.

This article, which accompanies CRN’s full report, “Communications: The Smart Grid’s Enabling Technology,” provides an overview of the study results, including a discussion of the challenges in upgrading telecommunications infrastructure, a comparison of technology options and key takeaways for successful technology planning.

“The evolution of the smart grid has increased the volume of data handled on a daily basis by the utility industry by an order of magnitude,” said Jim Spiers, NRECA’s vice president of Technology, Engineering and Economic Analysis.

“Cooperatives and the industry as a whole will benefit significantly from the lessons learned by these six co-ops that upgraded their communications infrastructure to meet the demands of smart grid applications and their members’ service needs,” Spiers said. “Their insights will assist fellow cooperatives in planning their own communications infrastructure needs and service and product offerings while avoiding pitfalls and potentially costly mistakes.”

The experiences of these six cooperatives is illustrative of co-op efforts nationwide to address evolving data needs and ensure cost-effective operations for members. Many co-ops have achieved benefits in hybridizing their communications networks, re-purposing existing communications paths to eliminate redundancy, utilizing more owned networks instead of leased networks, and combining voice and data channels for revenues from excess bandwidth, as examples.

CRN’s article and report offer specific and practical guidance for utility professionals planning smart grid projects, including an explanation of communication infrastructure requirements, two charts detailing communication requirements for discrete smart grid applications and questions that should be answered in the course of technology planning. CRN has also identified areas where more work is needed to overcome barriers to meeting the communication needs of utilities intending to modernize their systems, including: removing regulatory obstacles, pursuing technical innovation and providing guidance for utility decision-makers.

CRN is the technology research arm of NRECA, the trade association representing more than 900 electric cooperatives serving 42 million people in 47 states.

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