The smart grid calls for smarter gear

Utilities will need to update their network gear to keep up with a smarter grid.

By Donna Donnowitz
August 11, 2015

The United States responded to its rolling blackout epidemic by investing more heavily in natural gas. Now, as the natural gas boom begins to level out and more utilities are once again feeling the sting of limited supply, there's been added pressure to continue developing the country's power infrastructure with hopes of transforming it into a smart grid.

In addition to making power distribution more efficient and sustainable, improvements to the hardware managing the flow of power of the U.S. can also be a boon to cybersecurity, according to the Department of Energy. After all, a clever hacker could do untold damage to the country if he or she managed to access the grid's controls.

These are just a few of the reasons that utilities should look into updating the on-site hardware depended on to run the show. Digitizing the power grid operations puts considerably more control in the hands of the utility to distribute energy according to the real-time needs of clients attached to the grid. This process requires reliable gear with specialized functionality designed to meet the requirements of a complex, interconnected networks like the national and local power grids.

"The grid is not truly smart until operators can perform adjustments remotely."

Remote functionality critical for connecting substations
One of the main goals of the smart grid is to provide utility operators with a way of monitoring and managing multiple, interrelated grids as a single network. Connecting each substation with a piece of robust telecommunications hardware makes it easier to bridge these facilities than ever before. One critical feature that utilities re-organizing their infrastructure should prioritize is secure remote access. After all, the grid is not truly smart until an operator in one substation can perform adjustments on any other piece of equipment running on the shared network, regardless of location. Remote console servers and terminal switches make this type of long-range access possible.

In addition to lessening the amount of leg work grid operators must perform to make repairs, remote access makes it easier to address grid issues as soon as they begin. Responding to network failures more quickly could mean the difference between a short loss of service and rolling blackouts.

Demanding work environment requires specialized network components
The smart grid is a unique and ambitious project, so it's no surprise that utilities interested in connecting and automating substations might require gear specifically designed for the task. After all, network equipment operating near or inside grid substations are regularly subjected to power surges and high-frequency electrical transients or bombarded with electromagnetic fields. Thankfully, standards are available to help companies scan and select network solutions that are appropriate for the demands of the smart grid.

Look for products that meet IEC 61850-3 and IEEE 1613, standards outlined by the International Electrotechnical Commission and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, respectively. These guidelines are specific to network equipment designed for use in substation and industrial sites. Gear that earns these designations is guaranteed to stand up to random voltages and a long list of other scenarios that could lead to component or system failure.

Critical systems require advanced security
Highly secure network components are not just a luxury. For many industries, compliance is an absolute necessity. For instance, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation requires that terminal servers utilized to operate the smart grid meet multiple security requirements, such as HTTPS, SSL/TLS and SSH session encryption. Companies can beef up security of smart grid components even further by selecting network gear that includes an onboard integrated hardware encryption processor. Investing in these components will go along way toward not only preventing data breaches but also meeting critical compliance inspections and audits in the future. Local electricity customers grow more vulnerable to service interruptions when utilities wait to update their defenses.

Improved infrastructure comes with limitless benefits
The smart grid brings with it numerous improvements for power generators and consumers alike. According to SmartGrid.gov, projected perks of making the grid more interconnected and responsive include: improved transmission efficiency, reduced operating costs for businesses and substations alike, lower energy rates due to reduced peak demand and greater security for utilities and connected consumers.

"Utilities can future-proof their operations by investing in next-generation grid components."

Disruptions to business caused by power failures are only expected to continue ramping up while the country drags its feet on updating the grid. That's because the nation's electricity network still operates much the way it did when it was designed over a century ago. Extensive updates, especially with regards to deploying more reliable and resilient network equipment, are required to bring the power grid into the present. Utilities can begin future-proofing their operations and identifying means of increasing network efficiency by investing in next-generation grid components in the present.

Perle's wide range of 1 to 48 port Perle Console Servers provide data center managers and network administrators with secure remote management of any device with a serial console port. Plus, they are the only truly fault tolerant Console Servers on the market with the advanced security functionality needed to easily perform secure remote data center management and out-of-band management of IT assets from anywhere in the world.

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