Networking giant Cisco announced the first offerings in its "Connected Grid" portfolio on Tuesday, a transformational router and switch for utility substations that can combine all communications functions onto an Internet Protocol (IP)-based network.
The technology would slash operating expenses at utilities by up to 45 percent by dramatically improving communications equipment, the company said.
"Right now [utilities] have to run different lines for different types of communication — data, voice and so on — and they’re paying a lot in operating expenses for those leased lines," said Sanket Amberkar, Cisco’s senior director of Smart Grid Strategy.
The much-hyped announcement, about a year in the making, gives Cisco more momentum in the booming smart grid space.
Last May, the company first declared its intention to offer what it called an "end-to-end" smart grid solution for utilities — a secure, IP-based network that would enable communications between operations centers, substations and customers. Cisco said the coming breakthrough would also allow utilities to adopt a multitude of smart-grid functions, including smart metering, building automation and demand-response protocols.
Over the last year, the tech world saw a slew of Connected Grid advancements from the firm. It acquired a facility energy monitoring solution, which it later relaunched as EnergyWise; added Network Building Mediator, which allows companies to set protocols depending on utility pricing and energy availability information; partnered with everyone from General Electric to Siemens to smart-meter manufacturer Landis + Gyr; and tackled the security issues facing IP as the communications protocol of choice for the smart grid.
But this week’s launch of the router and switch marks Cisco’s first real nuts-and-bolts solution for substations.
A utility substation acts as a kind of regional electricity hub. Electricity comes from the power station and goes to the substation, where it is transformed and distributed to low-voltage networks. Cisco says it has tailor made the router and switch to meet these stations’ needs, rather than taking an existing router and switch and repackaging them for utilities to use.
For Amberkar, that’s an important distinction.
"The environment at a substation is rugged, it’s not like a traditional enterprise deployment," explained Amberkar. "First of all, you’ll see a wide temperature range because there’s nothing there to manage temperature, and then there’s contamination and dust because the equipment is not protected."
To address the temperature issue, the new Cisco router and switch are built to withstand temperatures from 104 degrees Fahrenheit up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
The technologies are also "ruggedized," according to Amberkar, to withstand dust and contamination. They are also built with what’s called a "hot swappable power supply" — a power supply that can be switched out while the switch or router is still running and is interchangeable between devices.
"When they put a switch in, they expect it to be there not for the traditional three to five years we see in IT, but really ten to fifteen years," Amberkar explained. "So there can be no moving parts. The requirements changed the whole design of the router and switch."
Pilot Projects Demonstrate Up to 45% Cost Savings
What utilities and their customers are likely to be more interested in, however, are the operational savings afforded by the connected grid router and switch.
"What we’re offering here is similar to what we offered in the telecom days: common IP infrastructure over which multiple communications can run," Amberkar said. "But we’re also letting them segment the network to keep, for example, the mission-critical secure line separate from the normal voice system."
According to Amberkar, by getting rid of additional communications wires, utilities can shave 30 to 45 percent off their operating expenses. Those numbers are based on pilots with the company’s first four utility customers — Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, Italian utility Enel and German utility Eon.
"When we were visiting substations, you could see they have all these different wires running all over the place, and they’re not always colored or tagged because they’ve just been adding wires as they need them, not knowing what’s there already," Amberkar said.
"There’s a lot of copper being wasted there as well. We imagine cleaning up a lot of metal in a substation and making it a lot more connected, but also giving utilities better knowledge of what is being connected to what."
While it’s up to each individual utility to pass the operational savings on to its customers, Cisco is also rolling out its Network Building Mediator this week, which delivers more direct cost savings to end users.
Data storage provider Net App has been piloting the service, along with PG&E, a major California utility, for the last year. PG&E sends Net App a pricing signal when it’s close to meeting peak demand. Using the protocols set within Network Building Mediator, Net App can shed 1.1 megawatts of load in 20 minutes, according to Amberkar.
"Not only can they shed it, and have policies in place to shed it, but they can also monitor their data center to make sure things aren’t getting too warm…and it’s all automated," he said.
According to Amberkar, Net App saved over $2 million in its first year of deploying Network Building Mediator, and recovered the cost of implementation within the first four months. The company is demonstrating Network Building Mediator at the Connectivity Week conference in California this week. Amberkar says it is now working with Walgreens to deploy Network Building Mediator across its stores.
Cisco also plans to unveil a home energy monitoring solution soon, according to Amberkar, but details on the launch are still being closely guarded.