5G rollout may give utility companies technical benefits and revenue gains

Advanced cellular technology is expected to start making an impact in around five years, providing both smart grid communications and revenue sources.

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The build-out of America’s smart grid will utilize a number of wireless communication technologies to gather data from smart meters and monitor remote equipment. The coming rollout of 5G cellular communications will give utility companies another connectivity option, as well as a potential revenue source.

Communications are a mainstay in utility infrastructures that include smart meters and a growing number of distributed energy resources (DERs) like solar arrays and wind turbines. Both often require multidirectional transmissions. Wireless links are also used to monitor remote stations and power transmission networks.

A broad range of technologies are used for these short- and long-range links. ZigBee, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, cellular communications and proprietary mesh networks are among the items in designers’ tool kits. Most of these technologies have found applications where they dominate, with some areas where communication schemes vie for market share.

The emergence of 5G cellular networks, expected to start in earnest around 2020, will shake up the market. Interest is not just in the U.S. A 5G monitoring system for wind farms is among the European Union’s 5G Public Private Partnership programs.

The rollout of 5G networks comes as two global movements increase demand for high-speed communications. The Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Cities movements both rely on networking to improve efficiency. Utility companies can gain a lot by jumping on the IoT bandwagon, and cities will benefit if utilities are part of their control networks. 5G is likely to be a foundation of these transformations.

A Smart Cities and Utilities Report from Black and Veatch predicts that, “For the utility sector, 5G technology will help unleash the next wave of smart grid features and efficiency through low-cost connections, improved monitoring capabilities and better forecasting of energy needs.”

Other market and technology watchers predict solid revenue gains in addition to useful technology benefits. Richelle Elberg, Principal Research Analyst for Energy at Navigant Research, noted that 5G may let utilities increase the rate of return from the record deployments of fiber optic networks installed across their territories.

“As 5G networks come to market, that fiber may present a revenue opportunity, as 5G will require fiber not only for backhaul but also fronthaul,” Elberg said. “Meanwhile, 5G networks may also present an attractive alternative to fiber given its very high performance profile and (purported) lower total cost of ownership. Another opportunity for utilities will come from its use of mmWave spectrum bands, which will require a very dense network of small cells. As utilities plan their networks of tomorrow, planners should not overlook the 5G option before investing millions in fiber or other networks.”

Qualcomm Technologies’ Jeffery Torrance noted that companies can start gaining some benefits of cellular connectivity without waiting for 5G to hit critical mass. Existing 4G technologies are being adapted to provide the features and functions needed for the Internet of Things. A variant called 4G LTE IoT uses narrowband technologies to reduce power consumption and cost, two big factors for utility providers, he explained.

The strategists who set plans for the nation’s utilities typically work in far longer timeframes than those used by the fast-moving cell phone field. Some utilities built networks that included 3G cellular, which was state of the art at the beginning of this decade. Those networks still work well, but 3G probably isn’t suited for any future plans.

“Cellular carriers will probably retire 3G in three or four years,” Elberg said. “There won’t be any new spending for 3G, but 4G will see more investments.”

Though 5G might be included in a lot of planning programs, it won’t see much operational investment until after 2025, according to Jeffrey D. Taft, the Chief Architect for Electric Grid Transformation at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. After then, it “will massively transform electric utilities,” he said in a report for the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Cellular’s role in utility networks is, like many things related to 5G at this early stage, still open to debate. In smart meters, Zigbee has a solid position. In some applications, proprietary networks are used to give operators control and security. The array of options is evidenced by ABB Wireless offerings, which include TropOS broadband wireless mesh routers, TeleOS sub-1 GHz unlicensed point-to-multipoint/point-to-point radios, ArcheOS sub-1 GHz licensed radios, the SuprOS network management system and MicrOS industrial wireless bridges.

Communication technologies may change as utility providers respond to changing needs. In smart meters, many are moving from one-way automated meter reading meters to bi-directional advanced metering infrastructure meters. Some market watchers feel that 5G features like high bandwidth aren’t overly important for meters that transmit relatively small data packets. But for large grids, widespread coverage may be a more important factor.

“In the U.S., utilities are not likely to rely on cell carriers for smart metering. They’re the option of last resort,” Elberg said. “It will primarily be used for monitoring remote products where the alternative is satellite communications, which is more expensive. Over the long term, 5G technology will allow low power networks for equipment that’s too remote to monitor with other technologies.”

For some utilities, the focus on 5G adoption may be secondary to revenue gains. The build-out of a 5G network requires a host of new cells. Many of them will probably be set up in territories controlled by utilities. Renting out space for these cells could enhance income.

“The most interesting thing about 5G may be that it creates new revenue opportunities,” Elberg said. “5G will require a massive amount of buildup, they will need a lot of new cells. Utilities own rights of way and utility poles where those cells can be installed. 5G represents more of a revenue opportunity than a service they can use.”

How this will play out is also up for questions. The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted that although 5G antennas weigh only a few grams, they will often be installed in arrays of a few hundred antennas. When power sources and other gear are added, the equipment could add as much as 400 pounds.

“Co-ops and other utility providers are concerned about the added weight on the poles, and how that will affect their stability and integrity during wind and ice storms, or prolonged rain events,” according to Robert Harris, senior principal engineer at NRECA.

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