Intelligent Communications Platform Provides Foundation for Clean Technology Solutions to Smart Grid

Since the wake-up call of the 2003 blackout in the northeastern United States and Canada, there’s been a steady push to improve the North American power grid. Legislation in both the United States and Canada has encouraged investments in technologies intended to make the grid intelligent and to solve critical energy issues. The Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 mandated that each state evaluate the business case for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). In Ontario, the Energy Conservation Responsibility Act of 2006 mandated deployment of smart meters to all consumers by 2010. And the recent U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 expands support from the U.S. government for investments in smart grid technologies while further emphasizing the need for the power industry to play a leadership role in addressing carbon dioxide emissions affecting climate change.

Recent state-level legislation and consumer sentiment suggest an increasing appetite for investments in distributed clean-technology energy solutions. Distributed generation technologies such as solar, wind and bio-diesel are becoming more readily available and have the potential to significantly improve grid operations and reliability.


Although the full vision for the smart grid is still somewhat undefined, most agree that an intelligent communications platform is a necessary foundation for developing and realizing this vision. Of the 10 elements that define the smart grid as contained within the Energy Act of 2007, more than half directly relate to or involve advanced capabilities for advanced communications.

A core business driver for intelligent communications is full deployment of smart metering, also referred to as advanced metering infrastructure. AMI involves automated measurement of time-of-use energy consumption – at either hourly or 15-minute intervals – and provides for new time-of-use rates that encourage consumers to use energy during off-peak hours when generation costs are low rather than peak periods when generation costs are high and the grid is under stress. With time-of-use rates, consumers may continue to use power during high peak periods but will pay a higher price to do so. AMI may also include remote service switch functionality that can reduce costs associated with site visits otherwise required to manage move-out/move-ins or to support prepayment programs.

Other smart grid capabilities that may be easily realized through the deployment of intelligent communications and AMI include improved outage management detection and restoration monitoring, revenue assurance and virtual metering of distribution assets.


Modern communications network solutions leverage standards-based technology such as IEEE 802.15.4 to provide robust two-way wireless mesh network communications to intelligent devices. The intelligent communications platform should provide for remote firmware upgrades to connected intelligent devices and be capable of leveraging Internet protocol-based communications across multiple wide-area network (WAN) options (Figure 1).

Critical for maximizing the value of a communications infrastructure investment is support for broad interoperability and interconnectivity. Interoperability for AMI applications means supporting a range of options for metering devices. A communications platform system should be meter manufacturer-independent, empowering choice for utilities. This provides for current and future competitiveness for the meter itself, which is one of the more expensive elements of the smart metering solution.

Interconnectivity for communications platforms refers to the ability to support a broad range of functions, both end-point devices and systems at the head end. To support demand-side management and energy-efficiency initiatives, an intelligent communications platform should support programmable communicating thermostats (PCTs), in-home displays (IHDs) and load control switches.

The system may also support standards-based home-area networks (HANs) such as ZigBee and Zensys. Ultimately an intelligent communications platform should support a model whereby third-party manufacturers can develop solutions that operate on the network, providing competitive options for utilities.

For enterprise system interconnectivity, an AMI demand-side management or other smart grid head-end application should be developed using service-oriented architecture (SOA) principles and Web technologies. These applications should also support modern Web services-based solutions, providing published simple object access protocol (SOAP)-based APIs. This approach provides for easier integration with existing enterprise systems and simplifies the process of adding functionality (either through enhancements provided by the vendor or add-ons delivered by third parties or developed by the utility).

Finally, the value of an intelligent communications platform deployment is driven by the ability of other enterprise applications and processes to utilize the vast amount of new data received through the AMI , demand side management and smart grid applications. Core areas of extended value include integration with customer information systems and call center processes, and integration with outage management and work management systems. In addition, the intelligent communications platform makes utilities much better able to market new offerings to targeted customers based on their energy consumption profiles while also empowering consumers with new tools and access to information. The result: greater control over energy consumption costs and improved satisfaction.


Deployment and integration of distributed generation, including renewable resources, is an important supply-side element of the smart grid vision. This may include the installation of arrays of solar photovoltaic panels on home and office roofs, solar carports, small wind (3-5kvA) turbines, small biogas turbines and fuel cells.

By integrating these resources into a common communications platform, utilities have the opportunity to develop solutions that achieve much greater results than those provided simply by the sum of independent systems. For example, intelligent plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEvs) connected to a smart solar carport may choose when to purchase power for charging the car or even to sell power back to the grid in a vehicle-to-grid (v2G) model based on dynamic price signals received through the communications platform. By maintaining intelligence at the edge of the grid, consumers and distributed resource owners can be empowered to manage to their own benefits and the grid as a whole.


Now is the time to embark on realizing the smart grid vision. Global warming and system reliability issues are driving a sense of urgency. An intelligent communications platform provides a foundation capable of supporting multiple devices in multiple environments – commercial, industrial and residential – working seamlessly together in a single unified network.

All of the technical assets of a smart grid can be managed holistically rather than as isolated or poorly connected parts. The power of a network grows geometrically according to the amount of resources and assets actively connected to it. This is the future of the smart grid, and it’s available today.