Extracting intelligence from legacy equipment at the network's edge
To remotely monitor and control communications across the network of smart meters, designers must address a number of concerns regarding power failures, connectivity, security, and access to equipment behind firewalls. Integrating M2M communications into legacy equipment provides remote access and troubleshooting capabilities, thereby reducing costs and improving service across the smart grid.
According to reports by ABI Research, the total installed base of smart meters capable of two-way communications is estimated to rise from roughly 76 million in 2009 to approximately 212 million by 2015. Networked smart meters offer more choice and greater flexibility to customers and more transparency to businesses and utility companies.
As intelligence is embedded inside meters or attached externally to equipment, different factors must be considered, including connectivity behind firewalls and data transformation, conversion, and storage. Efficient data and control acquisition across the network from each of these isolated points is a vital requirement for the power industry.
Embedded and external device servers provide a quick way to network-enable both OEM and legacy equipment using up-to-date communications standards including IEEE 802.11n, Wi-Fi Enterprise, IEEE 802.3, ZigBee, and Bluetooth. These products also facilitate powerful data capture, processing, and presentation without the addition of maintenance-heavy PCs.
It’s important to bring together the range of communications hardware and protocols to remotely control and manage the diverse array of service devices on the network and even behind firewalls. Designers can take advantage of this growing market segment by successfully utilizing legacy equipment and designing and implementing a smarter smart grid.
Identify the smart grid’s unique market and technical challenges
The utilities industry has long recognized the benefits of IP-based communication. At the substation level, however, there are often compatibility issues with communication hardware supplied by a variety of vendors. The smart grid comprises numerous critical components: utility meters, distribution substations, power adapters, battery monitors, power quality equipment, safety system monitors, and numerous other devices. To complicate matters, many of the components are legacy and not directly smart grid-friendly.
The energy marketplace requires a dependable tool to monitor critical power periods and appropriately distribute or allocate power as needed. Costs related to power failures and inaccurate human meter readings or data collection can be catastrophic to both utility companies and end users. For this reason, each component plays a key role in keeping power systems up and running across a distributed, wide geographical region that frequently requires technicians to visit every location to troubleshoot and correct problems.
Also, metering and power-generating equipment is often located in environments where severe weather is a concern. This requires special design considerations to ensure devices can withstand potential weather-related damage and temperature extremes. Given the unique environment, the equipment might also require specialized mounting and housing options to ensure it remains safe.
Network-connect legacy devices and design new equipment to harvest data via M2M communications
There are a variety of ways engineers can add M2M communications to legacy equipment and new designs for the smart grid. Power consumption information can be sent via numerous forms over the network, including Ethernet, 802.11, ZigBee, and power line carrier. Also, many companies with legacy non-networked equipment want to optimize their investment in existing infrastructure while integrating new technology. Engineers can provide serial connectivity for a variety of applications by using external devices servers and embedded modules.
A device server is a generic name for a flexible product that makes it easy to add network connectivity – whether cellular, Wi-Fi or other wireless, wired Ethernet, and so on – to a device with a simple means of communication. This can include RS-232 asynchronous communications, RS-422, RS-485, USB, SPI, or even digital I/O. While device servers can provide simple tunneling (imagine a virtual serial cable that extends across the globe), they can do much more. These device servers often have powerful processors and can customize software functionality so that data processing and presentation can be handled locally. This is important at remote sites where the cost of communications is high. For example, the device server can filter data to only allow critical alerts and other alarms to pass, rather than a large payload of low-value data.
Security is another critical component to consider. This includes both authentication and encryption methods. Many device servers enable the use of Secure Shell (SSH) and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), along with other encryption methods including Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), IPsec, and Triple Data Encryption Standard Wi-Fi Protected Access (3DES WPA).
A challenge that often plagues service providers is accessing equipment at remote sites when it is behind a firewall. This becomes especially problematic when network ownership and configuration is not under the provider’s control. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are one way to approach the problem but often require specific clients that only run on a limited set of hardware, namely PCs. What if the equipment behind the firewall is an embedded processor or device server, not a PC? VPN configurations also tend to grant more access than is needed, opening up potential security holes.
Software technology can allow specific devices access through the firewall to specific consumers outside the firewall. This access can be logged and is completely secured using government-approved security measures. For example, AccessMyDevice from Lantronix allows for transparent navigation through firewalls, enabling support and maintenance staff to easily monitor and manage equipment at remote sites. It can also provide a path for aggregated remote data to be stored or further processed using cloud computing technologies.
Long-term benefits and design best practices
Integrating M2M communications into legacy equipment enables remote access, control and troubleshooting capabilities for more efficient data acquisition, reduced costs, and better customer service across the smart grid. This simplifies updates to power systems and network-enables devices already in place, thus reducing system construction costs. By proactively monitoring network-enabled equipment from one central location to verify that it is functioning properly at all times, businesses can ensure uptime on critical systems, improve customer service, and increase profitability.
M2M technology and communications portals can also deliver more accurate billings without requiring physical meter readings. Since meters and other equipment that is part of the power generation and distribution ecosystem are networked to a centralized computer system, showing exactly where power is going, power companies can bill based on actual usage without needing to send someone to read the meter. It also reduces chances of power outages, enabling companies to remotely sense when and where power is pegged at a near-maximum level and then automatically slowed or shut down to protect critical areas.