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Communications and Energy

Current and emerging communications technologies promise to fundamentally alter the way energy companies manage their businesses and relate to their customers.
That was the consensus of industry leaders who served on a panel that I moderated at the Gridwise Global Forum, in Washington this week. The topic was "Integrating Wireless Technologies."

"It's not necessarily wireless communications that create the opportunities - it's ubiquitous networking coverage," said Eric Dresselhuys, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Silver Spring Networks.

"What 'new technologies' are needed?" Dresselhuys asked he said. "None - but that said, there is a constant march of `new and improved' technologies and we have to find a way to grow along with it.  Wireless technologies are totally turning over every 4-6 years and utilities are building systems for 15-20 years, so that creates a challenge.  This is why unifying  and converging networks around IP is so critical - we cannot be tied to a specific carrier technology."

But Bill Moroney, president and chief executive officer of the Utilities Telecom Council, said wireless capabilities will play a central role in transforming the utility business. "Wireless communications are the essential element in smart grids, Moroney said. "Without wireless communications, most of the consumer benefits of smart grids will remain a dream.  To conncect the hundreds of millions of devices that will become the smart grid, the cost of running wires and fiber optics is cost-prohibitive.  Most of these devices can be connected via commercial service providers while some elements of smart grids, closer to the core of the network, will need to run on proprietary utility networks."

Michael Brander, Verizon Wireless vice president of sales for utility and industrial markets, said emerging fourth generation wireless technologies will provide powerful new capabilities to utilities.   "Now, an order of magnitude increase in broadband capability is about to hit the market," Brander said.

Marzio P. Pozzuoli, president and CEO of RuggedCom, said that wireless will have broad use at utilities. "Wireless technologies will have to support more than just the communications needs of smart metering applications," Pozzuoli said. "There is the potential for a quad play for wireless in smart grid applications." He defined the four realms to be served by wireless as smart meters, distributed automation, SCADA and mobile workforce managment. "This in and of itself is a killer app," he said. 

Paul Budde, executive director of Smart Grid Australia, said that this week he reported to the United Nations about how wireless communications can help bring electricity to remote, regions in Africa. A few solar units, integrated with communications technologies, can lead to the emergence of small but effective new power companies in regions of the world desperately needing energy, he said.

As communications technologies play an ever-expanding role in utilities, the question of communications networks' security looms large. Moroney asked, "How do we secure all these new wireless networks?" He answered his own question, saying that utilities are staffed with problem solvers dedicated to isolating threats to their systems, removing the threats and then making their systems more robust.



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