Apr 21, 2021

The role of satellite in smart grid development

Steven Tompkins
4 min
Steven Tompkins, Director of Sector Development at Inmarsat, explains the benefits of cost-effective satellite technologies in smart grid applications

The utilities sector has become a pioneer of digital transformation in recent years, driven by a need to monitor, manage, automate and ultimately improve the quality and reliability of energy being supplied to consumers. Satellite connectivity is playing an increasingly important role in this move, at different stages of the distribution process. 

Ever more advanced technologies are being deployed across utilities networks in the march to build ‘smarter’ grids. Innovations in the use of centralised automated reclosers, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and the increasing automation of substations, in particular, continue to drive the sector forwards.

The traditional mix of connectivity technologies that have underpinned the expansion of smart grid applications over the last two decades – largely based on a combination of radio and cellular networks – requires updating. Vast areas of networks still have coverage dark spots, where terrestrial connectivity fails to provide the communications backbone needed to build efficient, reliable and secure smart grids. Additionally the need to have a failsafe in the case of a temporary outages with the main connectivity method means satellite can provide a highly reliable backup.

Satellite as a critical tool 

In the past, satellite-enabled solutions that provide ‘always on’ connectivity for utilities were often deemed cost-prohibitive or overly reliant on bulky hardware, but much has changed in recent years. The latest satellite technologies ensure ubiquitous connectivity in a highly cost-effective way, in addition to working as a highly reliable backup comms system when terrestrial connectivity networks fail.

Utilities companies need to meet fluctuations in consumer demand, to dynamically respond to surges, keeping downtime to an absolute minimum and providing a high level of service that improves people’s lives. These challenges are compounded by the shift towards a distributed-generation, low carbon economy that is transforming how power is both being produced and consumed by end users worldwide.

While the traditional electrical grid was a ‘one-way’ system, ‘smarter’ two-way grids give distributors and suppliers heads-up feedback on parameters such as system outages and local variations in electrical use. This provides grid managers the data needed to optimise the performance of the network, ensuring they can accommodate peak loads and anticipate any disturbances in supply. 

Changing the perception of satellite

Of those three core applications referenced above, it is arguable that centralised automated reclosers are the most important smart grid application, as they allow utility companies to sense and interrupt currents in the event of a fault, giving them the tools to automatically reconfigure the network to isolate faults and restore supply. 

All of these technologies – enabled by supervisory and control (SCADA) systems - are making field data more accessible and reliable than ever before, helping grid managers to make smarter, more informed decisions: enhancing visibility over metering and grid networks, ensuring fewer and shorter outages, reducing peak consumption by shifting demand loads, optimising electricity generation and distribution and keeping maintenance costs to a minimum. 

As today’s utility companies rely on these technologies to make the distribution smart grid more flexible, stable, resilient and secure, the same qualities must be true of their communications networks. In this context, the cost and reliability limitations of traditional radio and cellular-based technologies in enabling remote SCADA systems are becoming increasingly clear. Simply put, an unreliable communications backbone (particularly in remote and rural areas) significantly limits a grid managers ability to pinpoint malfunctions and dynamically respond to power outages. 

A lack of available and reliable terrestrial communication is a huge barrier to enhancing the capabilities of your network and making the most of smart grid applications and solutions. Whether it is smart meters or digital sensors and switches, such infrastructure advancements cannot be optimised (or are simply not possible) without reliable connectivity.

This is where the latest cost-effective satellite technologies and robust, reliable terminals are ideal for backhauling data from smart grid applications installed anywhere in the power grid, providing grid managers with an easy to integrate, real-time, IP-based connectivity service and giving them greater command and control across their entire network. 

At this point, it’s important that utilities companies understand the differences and limitations of different satellite services. VSAT satellite systems, for example, work with bulky terminals that rely on a high power draw and can often cease working in the event of a power cut. Plus, they often lose connection if adverse weather conditions such as cloud or wind interfere with the terminals.

In contrast, Inmarsat’s BGAN M2M service operates on Inmarsat’s L-band network, which was optimised for government and emergency applications and ranks amongst the most reliable forms of satellite connectivity. Moreover, the BGAN M2M service features robust and compact terminals that are smaller than a typical laptop, are easy to install and can withstand the harshest environmental conditions, with a lifespan of up to ten years or more and low monthly data usage costs. 

This is why Inmarsat’s BGAN M2M service is already used on over ten thousand reclosers across the world and has been trusted as the industry standard, providing utilities companies the necessary cost-effective, flexible, stable and secure communications backbone to underpin the latest smart grid innovations and developments of both today and tomorrow.


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May 5, 2021

AES Corp seals 10-year carbon-free energy deal with Google

Dominic Ellis
3 min
AES Corporation will ensure energy powering Google's Virginia data centers will be '90% carbon free'

The AES Corporation has struck a 10-year supply contract with Google to provide near-carbon-free energy to power its Virginia-based data centers which will start later this year.

Claiming the first clean energy procurement deal in the world of its kind, AES will help ensure that the energy powering those data centers will be 90% carbon-free when measured on an hourly basis.

AES will become the sole supplier of the data centers' carbon-free energy needs on an annual basis, sourcing energy from a portfolio of wind, solar, hydro and battery storage resources to be developed or contracted by AES.

The agreement marks an important step in meeting Google's previously announced goal to run its business on 100% carbon-free energy on an hourly basis by 2030.

"Last year, Google set an ambitious sustainability goal of committing to 100% 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030. Today, we are proud that through our collaboration with Google, we are making 24/7 carbon-free energy a reality for their data centers in Virginia," said Andrés Gluski, AES President and CEO. "This first-of-its-kind solution, which we co-created with Google, will set a new sustainability standard for companies and organizations seeking to eliminate carbon from their energy supply."

"Not only is this partnership with AES an important step towards achieving Google's 24/7 carbon-free energy goal, it also lays a blueprint for other companies looking to decarbonize their own operations," says Michael Terrell, Director of Energy at Google. "Our hope is that this model can be replicated to accelerate the clean energy transition, both for companies and, eventually, for power grids." 

AES assembled the 500MW portfolio from a combination of AES' own renewable energy projects and those of third-party developers, which were selected, sized and contracted to meet Google's energy needs across a number of considerations, including cost efficiency, additionality and carbon-free energy profile.

The portfolio assembled by AES is expected to require approximately $600 million of investment and generate 1,200 jobs, both permanent and construction, in the host communities. These efforts will greatly simplify Google's energy procurement and management at a competitive price while decarbonizing Google's load and the broader PJM grid.

This supply agreement follows on the strategic alliance AES and Google formed in November 2019 to leverage Google Cloud technology to accelerate innovation in energy distribution and management and advance the adoption of clean energy. AES is pioneering greener, smarter energy innovations, with the goal of expanding the services available to large-scale corporate customers.

The Google.org Impact Challenge on Climate commits €10M to fund bold ideas that aim to use technology to accelerate Europe’s progress toward a greener, more resilient future. Selected organisations may receive up to €2M in funding and possible customised post-grant support from the Google for Startups Accelerator to help bring their ideas to life.

Last year it issued $5.75 billion in sustainability bonds to fund ongoing and new environmentally or socially responsible projects. To read its 2020 Environment report, click here.

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