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Is it Wi-SUN’s Time to Shine?

Is it Wi-SUN’s Time to Shine?
From the sun to solar panels, wind turbines and, eventually, the utility grid, communication is as important as energy transmission.

Even with the still uncontained COVID-19 pandemic, the news is full of stories about governments and states moving ahead with the rollout of smart grid, renewables, and meter technologies. For example, food giant General Mills remains committed to achieving 100% renewable electricity globally by 2030. The company is investing in several renewable energy projects including two large-scale wind farms and anaerobic digestion biogas to capture and use methane from waste to generate electricity.

At the government level, the state of Hawaii is moving forward with wind, rooftop solar and grid-scale storage technologies to achieve zero-emissions by 2045. Several new policies are now in place to help achieve this goal including making it easier for solar contractors to add new smart meters during installations without a lot of red tape. Comprehensive energy management systems are also being put in place.

But challenges remain. To help understand how technology will help overcome these challenges, Design News reached out to Peter Knazko, Staff Product Marketing Manager for Connectivity Solutions at Renesas. Here’s a portion of that discussion.

Design News: What are the trends in the smart grid and smart meters?

Peter Knazko: The Smart Grid is a huge undertaking that involves many areas of development. Smart metering is an important one, but the electricity distribution and transmission networks are undergoing a lot of change, as well. These parts of the electricity network are making use of new products that apply analytics and very fast communication to make the grid more stable and secure. Meters exist at the outer edges of the distribution network and are key for utilities to be able to better understand energy consumption and as a way to offer their customers demand-response benefits, such as the ability to determine how to use electricity more economically.

Design News:  What is Wi-SUN? How does it play into energy systems?

Peter Knazko: Wi-SUN is a long-range communication technology that offers secure, reliable, and open-standards based communication over large geographic areas, such as those encompassed by electricity distribution networks. The unique thing about Wi-SUN is the Wi-SUN Alliance’s emphasis on interoperability. Utilities want interoperable communication solutions. They don’t want to be tied to proprietary technologies that limit their choices of vendors or the ability to get the best price benefits from these vendors for the networks that serve their energy customers. In this respect, Wi-SUN is analogous to our experience with Ethernet or Wi-Fi. We automatically assume that these technologies will interoperate. Wi-SUN offers this same piece-of-mind about connection compatibility but for utility and industrial environments. Although not as fast as Ethernet or Wi-Fi, the serviceable distances that Wi-SUN can reach, given its mesh capabilities and use of sub-GHz frequency spectrum, offers several orders of magnitude of distance advantages for essentially the same security and reliability that we associate with properly configured Ethernet and Wi-Fi networks.

[Editor’s Note: Field-area networks (FANs) enable critical utility communications between the core Internet Protocol (IP) network and devices, as well field personnel. FANs must cover large geographic areas, potentially the utility's entire service territory. Utilities typically implement a multi-tier communication network architecture consisting of: Tier 1 - the utility’s core IP network; Tier 2 - the FAN, typically wireless, and; Tier 3 - the Neighborhood Area Network (NAN) or advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network, including smart meters and collectors.]

Wind turbines. Maui, Hawaii. (Image Source: Wind Maui Adobe Stock)

Design News: What technology is needed for energy management systems? Are there development kits to help?

Peter Knazko: Energy management systems come in many different flavors, depending on the end users. Utilities have sophisticated requirements for monitoring and controlling large energy flows in their transmission and distribution networks. These systems can require very fast microcontrollers and microprocessors that need fast analog signal conversion, analysis of those signals in both the time and frequency domains, multiple and redundant communication interfaces, and the ability to accommodate a large number of I/Os for the sensors, RTUs, and intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) that are spread across the electricity networks. There are development systems with these capabilities, and the operating systems that make the systems function effectively.

Design News: How is COVID-19 affecting the supply chain for energy designs?

Peter Knazko: The global supply chain for the semiconductor industry is complex. But at its core, there has always been an enormous emphasis on avoiding contamination at the sub-microscopic level and along the whole production chain. The supply chain is also heavily automated. The assembly of electronic systems are heavily automated processes, performed to a large extent by machines. I think that these long-established aspects of the electronics and semiconductor supply chain have allowed for the industry to continue to be productive while protecting those who work in these environments during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Design News: Will COVID-19 infect the smart grid?

Peter Knazko: COVID-19 affects people, so wherever people are involved in smart grid work, there is a danger that those people may be affected. The first priority must to protect people. The smart grid will continue to become a reality with the proper precautions from states’ and the nation’s health officials in place for us all to be safe.

Design News: That’s a great point. Several companies in the electricity industry have even suggested that key employees may need to live on the site at power plants and control centers to keep operations going, should the virus outbreak become worse. This might not be a bad idea as there is a limited number of operators trained to run power plants, especially electrical, nuclear and oil and gas plants. Their health is now a critical concern for the industry. To that end, many such sites have been stockpiling beds, blankets and food to provide for just such a contingency.

The good news is that the power industry as a whole has been planning for events to keep their highly skilled workers healthy and nearby to their power stations. For example, Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, recently said that some of the nation’s nearly 60 nuclear power plants are also “considering measures to isolate a core group to run the plant, stockpiling ready-to-eat meals and disposable tableware, laundry supplies and personal care items.”

WiSUN FAN Field Area Network. (Image Source: WiSUN Alliance FAN, Renesas)​​​​​​​

John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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