Peninsula Light’s service area includes a particularly picturesque part of the Pacific Northwest: two peninsulas on Puget Sound, along with Fox Island, Herron Island, and the aptly named Raft Island.

But the rugged natural beauty presents a communications challenge for the Gig Harbor, Washington-based electric co-op.

“In addition to the long peninsulas, we have a lot of water and a lot of elevation changes and a lot of trees,” says Michael Simpson, Peninsula Light’s engineering manager.

Stable and secure two-way communication is becoming ever more essential for co-ops as trends like the expanding smart grid, distributed generation, and the rise of the internet of things place a premium on reliable high-speed data transfer.

Effective solutions differ depending on the characteristics of a co-op’s service territory and the needs of its membership, Simpson says. “Future-proofing is a cliché, but all of our technology solution decisions have been made based on flexibility and being able to respond on the changes to the industry and member expectations.”

'Impressive' Improvement

For years, Peninsula Light had used a licensed radio network for SCADA communications. But the nature of its territory meant “we had a number of sites that our own radios could not reach into,” says Amy Grice, the co-op’s system engineer supervisor.

In 2012, they began looking into Grid Wide, a cloud-based platform from Verizon that uses the company’s cellular network to provide smart meter and system management and control. Peninsula Light’s first use of the network was for machine-to-machine (M2M) communications between headquarters and downline devices like field reclosers and substation equipment.

“We currently have over half our total SCADA infrastructure on the M2M network,” Grice says, adding that communications reliability has gone from “80 to 85 percent uptime to 99 percent plus.

“It was incredibly impressive.”

Grice says the co-op started looking at cellular solutions after experiencing problems with the existing prepaid meter communications, which used a power-line-carrier system.

“The most frustrating for us internally, as well as our members, was after payment would be made, typically after hours when we didn’t have anyone on duty, the meter would not reconnect,” Grice says. “The signal would literally get lost on the lines, and the system would not allow another control to be resent.”

The cooperative would have to send a line crew to deal with the meter.

Simpson says Peninsula Light CEO Jafar Taghavi and the co-op’s board supported investing in technology that would allow them to stay up to date in a rapidly changing area. They considered smaller vendors that aggregated wireless broadband but ultimately settled on Verizon because of its network and capacity.

The cooperative uses the platform to communicate with 500 prepaid meters. While they still manage disconnects manually, the system will automatically restore service when payment is made.

Peninsula Light is beginning to tap other capabilities of the system, including a deployment planned for later this year of 500 new smart meters that will include the platform’s communications card.

“We’re going to use these to help us detect outages, for power quality assessment, voltage drop, downed conductor detection, and more,” Simpson says.

The co-op is also looking down the road to microgrids and the rise of blockchain software, which can enable peer-to-peer energy trading, to “members having much more control over their own consumption,” Grice says. “We are preparing for that now.”

'Networks as a Tool'

The proliferation of interactive technology on both sides of the meter is one of the primary challenges to effective communications, says Tony Thomas, NRECA senior principal engineer.

“One clear aspect of distribution optimization is the need to talk to all kinds of devices,” he says. “The choice then becomes, do we build and maintain our own communication systems, or do we leverage an existing communication network?”

For many co-ops, going with a third party “is just smart business,” he says. “Let the communication system experts do what they do, and focus on communication systems as another tool in the toolbox. Once we see these networks as a tool, we can find all sorts of uses like demand response, cap bank control, remote monitoring, and control of most anything.”

Brian Sloboda, a senior program manager in NRECA’s Business and Technology Strategies group, cautions that media reports about things like private conversations being recorded by voice-controlled devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home have led to rising privacy concerns about “connected” homes. To allay those concerns, Sloboda says, data security is paramount.

“Any time you’re building your own communications network, there are a lot of cybersecurity issues,” he says. “You have to be concerned about that.”

However, Sloboda and Peninsula Light’s Simpson emphasize that each cooperative needs to assess its own circumstances when deciding on communications solutions.

“There are co-ops where there is no cellular or radio coverage due to terrain; others, the terrain is not that awful, but they have pockets without cellular coverage. So in each case, they’re driven to a different solution,” Simpson says. “You just really need to do your homework. Even for us, we’re constantly re-evaluating where we stand.”

In the coming years, the growth and nature of storage on the grid, the impact of plug-in vehicles, and member expectations concerning demand management in smart appliances could all add to co-op communication’s challenges, he notes.

“We don’t know what the future brings obviously, or when it will it bring it,” Simpson says. “But we feel very comfortable being prepared for whatever will come our way.”