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The October 17, 2006 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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SmartGrid: The Road to BPL?

The mantra has changed. When we last attended a Broadband Over Power Line (BPL) conference (see BPL Part 2: UTC Telecom and PLCA Conferences (BBHR 5/31/2004)), most of the discussion was on retail—broadband to consumer—applications. Fast forward two plus years to the recent UPLC Broadband Power Line 2006 conference in Charlotte, NC, and the focus had largely shifted to internal utility applications.

What changed? Demand and costs for electricity have continued to grow rapidly. In recent years, U.S. power utilities have experienced several major mishaps. In a major outage this summer in Queens, NY, the local utility grossly underestimated how many homes were involved. For the first five days, the utility was not able to determine the cause of the outage; after a week, only half the affected customers had service restored. It became clear that utilities don't have the tools to anticipate such failures nor to pinpoint them when they occur.

Tim Frost of Con Edison & Utility Co-Chair UPLC --> Click for larger pictureSome industry participants have long believed that BPL technology is most critical for internal applications at their company. At UTC Telecom 2004, Tim Frost, director of Corporate Planning of Con Edison (the New York City utility), was one of these proponents. Tim is presently the Utility Co-Chair on the UPLC Board of Directors.


State of the Industry

Long time Wall Street analyst Judy Warrick, Senior Advisor, Morgan Stanley, and Sandra Meyer, President, Duke Energy Ohio and Kentucky, provided their perspectives on the utility industry, as well as how the industry is viewed by consumers. Meyer reported that consumers in focus groups said things like: "I don't know why when power goes off it takes so long to fix it. All they have to do is flip a switch and it goes back on" and "They must have a display at headquarters to show them what is happening." The general public is unaware that most utilities lack the tools to anticipate and diagnose failures.

Users also believe that utilities are charging them more for the same things they got before. In fact, the increases in people's bills are reflecting increases in electricity use, as more and more of our lives are intertwined with and dependent upon electronic devices.

Warrick's analysis pointed out that while the utilities have been willing to take huge risks in diversification, they have been unwilling to introduce technologies into their core business. Her conclusion is that the industry is technophobic--but for a reason. That reason is the state of mind that comes from being regulated. "At this point in time the only constituent that matters is the regulator". This focus overwhelms considerations of customers and shareholders, since the regulator has the power of the purse. "Being regulated means little upside and lots of downside" she observed. After all, the utility is "invisible when the lights stay on and humiliated when they don't". The conclusion was that it is going to take lots of hard work and a great deal of education of regulators to make technology adoption happen. The concern is that without greater investment, U.S. utilities will not be able to reliably support the increasing demand for energy.


All Eyes on Texas

Texas provides a contrast with this bleak view of technology adoption. Current Communications and TXU Electric Delivery (the sixth-largest U.S. electric transmission and distribution company) have agreed to build a BPL network covering most of the TXU area. The companies are calling the project "the nationís first broadband-enabled Smart Grid."

Michael Quinn, TXU Project Manager --> Click for larger pictureIn a jointly presented talk, Michael Quinn, TXU Project Manager, and Terry Wingfield, Current's VP of Business Development, laid out the impetus, goals and status of the project. They reported that an analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) showed that outage costs represent 1% of GDP, or a cost of 50 cents for every dollar spent on electricity. They believe that technology investments could reduce outage costs by 50-80%.

Current will design, build and operate the BPL network, which will cover approximately two million homes and businesses in Dallas-Fort Worth and other communities. The BPL network solution will provide real-time monitoring through the electric distribution network, enabling increased network reliability and power quality, more effective outage prevention, detection and restoration and more efficient meter reading.

TXU has laid out the goal of being in the top-decile with respect to electric service reliability. They also anticipate additional products and services to enable businesses and consumers to manage their electricity usage and costs.

Current Communications will leverage the same BPL network to provide homes and businesses "broadband and wireless services, including the 'triple play' of voice, video and high-speed Internet access delivered over existing electrical lines by simply plugging into any home outlet."

The presenters underscored that "managing the TXU deployment is a joint effort". The fiber infrastructure is already underway and they expect over 10,000 BPL enabled automatic meter reading (AMR) meters will be deployed before the end of 2006. Retail broadband service will also be offered by year end.

The interesting spin on the TXU deployment is that many of Current's competitors we spoke with expressed the hope that the rollout with be a success. They believe success at TXU would pave the way for other utilities to go forward with their own BPL rollouts.

Texas is one of the premiere states for deploying BPL because of its favorable regulatory and legislative environment. Senate Bill 5 (SB5), passed in 2005, authorizes electric power companies to provide broadband service via broadband over power line without oversight by the PUC or by cities.

TXU is not the only BPL project underway in Texas. CenterPoint Energy, which serves 5 million electric and gas customers, has undertaken an extended BPL pilot. As with TXU, they have two goals in mind; one is creating an intelligent grid and the other is the potential for the non-regulated use of assets. TXU is partnering with IBM in this effort; IBM has apparently taken an interest in BPL, since the new Technology Co-Chair on the UPLC Board of Directors is Ray Blair who heads BPL Initiatives at IBM.


Standards: Coexistence or Interoperability?

No technology conference is complete without at least one session on standards. Speakers at this one included Gary Steubling of Duke Energy, Oleg Loginov representing the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, Mike Stelts for the Consumer Electronics Powerline Communication Alliance (CEPCA) and Chano Gomez of DS2 for the Universal Powerline Association (UPA). The focus of the session was on whether the present goal should be "interoperability" or "coexistence".

Gary Steubling of Duke opened the session by saying "All we have today are specifications, not standards". He continued: "If you want to move an industry, you have to get everyone going in the same direction." His bottom line was simple: "Coexistence doesn't cut it."

Loginov talked about why interoperability rather than just coexistence must be achieved. In his view, HomePlug networking specifications are the only globally-recognized standards for high-speed powerline networking.

"Mutually Assured Destruction" --> Click for larger pictureCEPCA's members include consumer electronics companies such as Sony, Pioneer, Panasonic, Mitsubishi, Hitachi, Toshiba and Sanyo. These companies believe coexistence is critical to prevent conflicting signals on the powerline which end up causing consumers to return their CE products. A dramatic CEPCA slide warned that if the coexistence problem is not addressed, the result will be "mutually assured destruction".

The UPA's goal is "UPA certified products that comply with agreed specifications". Members include Ambient, Current Technologies International, Corinex, DS2, Itochu, Ilevo, Sumitomo and Toyo Network Systems. Several of these companies—including Corinex and Current—are also members of HomePlug. The UPA emphasizes time-to-market, and maximizing use of spectrum for both access and in-home networking.

The bottom line on this session was that there are now three different organizations, each with different specifications. CEPCA and UPA have reached a preliminary agreement towards a coexistence mechanism between UPA silicon and CEPCA silicon, with both technologies equally sharing the channel. These specifications have been submitted to ETSI PLT and the IEEE BPL Standards Working Group. HomePlug believes interoperability is the only viable path, and is not an active participant in efforts to specify coexistence with the others.


Duke Energy Site Visits

The first day of the UPLC conference featured exhibits in the morning and site visits in the afternoon. The exhibits were interesting, but the site visits provided a great opportunity to see how these systems are installed.

Duke Energy merged with Cinergy earlier this year, and is one of the largest US electrical utilities. Duke is headquartered in downtown Charlotte, a few blocks from the conference hotel.

Ambient overhead equipment --> Click for larger pictureDuke Energy is currently running field trials of both Ambient and Current technologies, both in residential areas about ten miles south of downtown Charlotte. Duke arranged a bus tour to see both trials, and most conference attendees went on the tour.

The first stop was the area where the Ambient system is installed. We visited an apartment complex near a main road with overhead medium-voltage distribution wiring. The picture on the left shows Ambient's node--acting as a repeater to extend the signal further down the power line--mounted on the pole, with the coupler shown at the center right of the picture connected to the medium voltage wire.

Ambient underground equipment --> Click for larger pictureUnderground wiring runs from the main road into the complex. An Ambient node provides connectivity from the medium voltage to the low voltage side of the transformer. The underground node is mounted on the side of the transformer case; the coupler is the silver-colored cuff in the center left of the picture.

Current Technologies underground installation --> Click for larger pictureWe got back on the bus and drove a short distance to see the Current system in operation at another apartment complex. The picture shows the Current Technologies CT Bridge unit and couplers on an underground transformer. The Bridge is mounted inside the covered housing of the transformer case; the couplers are the cuffs at the center left.

Current Technologies overhead installation --> Click for larger pictureThis picture shows the Current Technologies CT Backhaul Point and coupler on a nearby overhead line. The Backhaul Point is the silver box on the lower right; the coupler is at the center left.

Fiber node on side of pole --> Click for larger pictureThe Backhaul Point is connected to Duke Energy's fiber through a fiber node.


Company Announcements

Here are some of the announcements made at the UPLC show:

  • As part of Duke Energy's ongoing BPL pilot program, Ambient announced an Expanded Deployment Agreement. This will expand the current 500 home technology trial to a 6000 home commercial trial. In September, Ambient received FCC certification for their second-generation BPL communication node.
  • Motorola announced a BPL offering which combines its Canopy fixed broadband product with an in-building BPL offering based on Homeplug Turbo technology. Motorola Ventures was one of the participants in equity financing of Intellon, the chip supplier for Homeplug Turbo.
  • utility.net, a BPL integrator and network operator, came out of stealth mode. The company is focused on helping Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs) to deploy BPL technology to unserved and underserved cities and communities.

( www.uplc.org ) ( www.conedison.com ) ( www.morganstanley.com ) ( www.duke-energy.com ) ( www.currentgroup.com ) ( www.txu.com ) ( www.epri.com ) ( www.centerpointenergy.com ) ( www.ibm.com ) ( www.homeplug.org ) ( www.cepca.org ) ( www.ds2.es ) ( www.upaplc.org ) ( www.ambientcorp.com ) ( www.motorola.com ) ( www.intellon.com ) ( www.utility.net )