Smart grid offers test gear opportunities

JULY 7, 2010 By Stephen Hardy -- Electric utilities have deployed fiber-optic networks for decades. So it’s no wonder that many utilities have looked to fiber optics to help enable their smart grid initiatives. That’s good news for optical communications technology suppliers -- including test equipment companies.

JULY 7, 2010 By Stephen Hardy -- Electric utilities have deployed fiber-optic networks for decades. So it’s no wonder that many utilities have looked to fiber optics to help enable their smart grid initiatives. That’s good news for optical communications technology suppliers -- including test equipment companies.

Pinning down the opportunity can be a challenge, however. “Smart grid means a heck of a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And to some extent, they’re all correct as it pertains to their point of view,” says Jon Beckman, director of strategy marketing for JDSU’s test instruments group.

That’s because the electric utility market is fragmented along a variety of lines, from urban versus rural, public versus investor owned, and whether a particular utility has focused its smart grid efforts on generation and transmission or distribution or both, Beckman explains. Broadly speaking, however, smart grid efforts focus on adding intelligence to the network, two-way communications, and more robust monitoring and control.

All of this means a greater emphasis on communications pipelines -- and fiber. Fortunately for companies like JDSU, many of the overall trends that might drive test equipment requirements for electric utility networks and smart grids are similar to those found in communications carrier networks.

“If I look at the trends, whether you call it smart grid or just updates to the utilities’ communications infrastructure, the big trends we see are a migration from analog to digital, and on the digital side from TDM or circuit switched to packet switched and more and more Ethernet,” Beckman says. “And from legacy copper T1-type infrastructure to fiber.”

Similarly, low latency is a growing requirement; in a smart grid application, control instructions and monitoring information must travel as quickly as possible. “To link nodes point to point, they’ll dedicate a single fiber between two protected relays or breakers on a segment of the grid so that they can have almost instantaneous communication. If something is going wrong [they can quickly] command the upstream breaker to open to prevent any further damage downstream,” Beckman says.

The traffic on such links won’t match the bandwidth demands found on typical carrier networks -- “The information carried over that fiber is almost binary,” Beckman says -- which illustrates that smart grid requirements have yet to drive the kind of capacity demands found in conventional communication networks. Yet when you add a demand for reliability and resiliency (as well as a technology that doesn’t conduct electricity) to the trends already highlighted, fiber offers a exemplary conduit for the intelligence, two-way communications, and control and monitoring capabilities smart grid applications demand.


Test it out

Of course, a desire for reliability, control, and monitoring create a demand for test equipment, which is why companies such as JDSU have their eyes on the smart grid space.

“It’s really important that when the network is being built and provisioned and operated from an installation and maintenance perspective that the installation is being done right the first time,” offers Beckman. “That when I’m turning up an Ethernet link over fiber I’m making sure I get the throughput I expect, looking at those stats for quality of service initially, and then having the capability as necessary to monitor it.”

Even when fiber installation is handled via a contractor, electric utilities find optical test equipment useful. “They typically test the fiber on the spools there to make sure that there’s no damage from a liability perspective before the contractors go ahead and install the fiber out in the network,” Beckman explains.

Because the two worlds look so similar, Beckman says that JDSU can offer the same test gear for smart grid applications as for general communications networks. Beckman cited the addition of one-way delay measurement capability to the company’s T-BERD as an example of functions that benefit both smart grid and more typical communications networks (see “JDSU adds one-way delay to T-BERD/MTS 6000A”).

As a story in the upcoming July/August issue of Lightwave points out, the move towards smart grids likely will drive increased demand for optical communications. That rising tide should float the boats of test equipment companies as well.

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