iDirect: A new look at advanced satellite solutions for Smart Grid implementation

By Dorothy Davis 

The core tenants of the Smart Grid are reliability, efficiency, security, economic value and environmental viability. As utilities move toward embracing what is being touted as the most comprehensive shift in the energy business model, questions abound on how to best beat the technological curve while keeping costs and reliability under control.

Expectations are high for this advanced energy sector, but it is also understood that grid modernization is a process. Utilities are seeking tools that can service the industry throughout the entire course of its move to the Smart Grid. Communication, reliability and remote access are crucial to basic operations before, during and after Smart Grid implementation. Progress is being made in offering new technologies to meet the multifaceted needs of the energy industry during this transformation, and one of the companies taking the lead is iDirect.

iDirect offers a Satellite IP-based Intelligent Platform for Smart Grid implementation for utilities that is broad enough to meet evolving needs and focused enough to address the critical aspects of implementing Smart Grid technologies.

PennEnergy had the opportunity to speak with one of iDirect’s experts, Christian Bergan, Director of Energy and Utility Markets, to find out what iDirect’s Satellite IP-based Intelligent Platform has to offer utilities moving into the Smart Grid.

Q: When did iDirect begin working toward a Satellite IP-based Intelligent Platform for Smart Grid implementation by utilities? 

A: iDirect revolutionized the satellite communications industry by introducing the first IP-based satellite network communications platform. Since then, the platform has been embraced by the oil and gas sector, the maritime industry and several others to provide reliable, always-on broadband to remote locations.

During the past few years, we have received increased interest from energy and power utilities considering a satellite system to solve their communications challenges. One major utility in the US and another abroad have already completed successful pilot testing and deployed their satellite solution to integrate our platform with their existing terrestrial and wireless systems to extend SCADA and other communications to every site on their grid.

Q: iDirect's Intelligent Platform has a lot to offer in the areas of mobility and communications, but what advances has iDirect made in reliability and connectivity?

A: Over the past few years, advancements to satellite communications have improved efficiency, reliability and availability. iDirect has been at the forefront of these innovations, enabling two-way, high-speed satellite networks that are built on IP and integrate seamlessly with core communications technology.

One of the most important of these advancements is increasing data rates and throughput of satellite networks to broadband speeds, equivalent to terrestrial networks.

To improve availability, the iDirect platform allows bandwidth to be prioritized based on the specific needs of each application on the network. With iDirect’s Group Quality of Service technology, a satellite router at an individual substation can ensure that business-critical SCADA applications always run at maximum reliability, while supporting higher bandwidth applications like voice, data and video.

Another traditional limitation of satellite communications is that adverse weather can lower the strength and reliability of a signal. iDirect’s Adaptive Coding and Modulation (ACM) technology is a specialized feature of the platform that solves this challenge. It optimizes link quality and maximizes throughput during rain fade, sun fade and other conditions, in order to maintain network performance.

Q: Currently, the Smart Grid technology being most widely implemented by utilities is advanced metering, what does iDirect's Intelligent Platform offer in terms of AMI?

A: Backhauling of AMI data from the less populated, rural areas is a real challenge for most utilities, due to the lack of terrestrial-based communications. An iDirect remote satellite router provides a very cost-effective means to extend a utility company’s WAN to any location regardless of distance and topography. Furthermore, an iDirect satellite router integrates seamlessly with any of the terrestrial radio solutions or even GSM/GPRS that are being used to communicate with an individual Smart Meter.

Q: How can iDirect's Intelligent Platform help to optimize renewable energy resources? 

A: Most of the renewable energy generating sites are generally located in very remote locations, far out of reach from a utility company’s WAN. Laying fiber or extending microwave radio links to these sites is often not cost effective.

iDirect’s satellite communications networking technology enables utilities to extend their broadband communications infrastructure to remote locations, and integrate these sites into their EMS and SCADA systems.

Q: A major concern of utilities are start-up costs for implementing Smart Grid technologies – Where does iDirect's Intelligent Platform solution rank in comparison to RF Wi-Fi, Fiber and Microwave networks? 

A: Satellite communications helps utility companies provide cost-effective broadband access to support Smart Grid applications at remote substations, offering several advantages over other communications technologies:

• Fiber requires utilities to build out dedicated lines, which is often not cost-effective over long distances.

• Microwave links are prone to distance limitations and line-of-sight challenges, and often can’t effectively reach remote locations without being built out, which likewise isn’t cost-effective over long distances. 

• Due to lack of spectrum availability, RF wireless networks have high deployment costs in outlying areas.

Flexibility and scalability are hallmarks of the iDirect platform, making satellite technology cost effective for utilities to implement as a fully-owned and managed private network out of their own teleport. With iDirect, utility companies can start out small with an initial investment in a satellite hub and a few network line cards, and expand capacity as their network grows.

For those utilities that do not wish to invest in their own teleport, but still would like to manage their own network, the iDirect VNO model makes this possible. An established iDirect Host Network Operator (HNO) will install the required line cards to enable the utility to own and operate their own network via the HNO’s teleport.

For a small rural distribution co-op a viable option is to outsource their remote connectivity requirements to an iDirect Network Service Provider.

Q: What advances have been made in iDirect's Intelligent Platform concerning network security?

A: All branches of the US military and many federal agencies currently rely on the iDirect platform to provide highly secure communications.

With iDirect’s private network architecture, organizations can minimize the risk of intrusion, helping prevent the possibility of outside tampering of critical assets. iDirect’s technology makes it possible to encrypt all data sent over network links using AES encryption with 256-bit keys. And with iDirect’s broadband capabilities, organizations can support on-site video surveillance and other applications to meet physical security requirements.

Q: What is next for iDirect and the Smart Grid? 

A: As utility companies build out their Smart Grids, they will need to collect data from billions of sensors and control devices, many with very low bandwidth requirements. iDirect’s goal is to optimize our core platform components, including remote satellite routers and network line cards, for low data rate communications and make those available at a very affordable cost point.

In addition, we will continue developing advanced traffic management features that minimize bandwidth usage while providing the required latency and responsiveness as experienced with systems employing Slotted Aloha-type access schemes. 

Christian Bergan is Director of the Energy and Utility markets at iDirect. Bergan is responsible for market strategy and works closely with iDirect’s global network of service providers to promote the value of VSAT technology throughout the industry.

Prior to joining iDirect, Bergan was a director, sales and marketing with TSAT, providing satellite communications solutions to the energy and utility industries. He spent 20 years with IC Bergan where he was the vice president of sales and marketing. The company manufactured sensors and controls for the energy transportation industry.

With a background in both the satellite and energy industries, Bergan offers a unique blend of knowledge and experience to help educate the energy and utility markets on the expanding capabilities of satellite communications.

Bergan holds a Bachelors degree from Oslo Engineering College in manufacturing engineering and a Masters degree in management from Troy University.

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