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Ever since the term came to prominence in the mid-2000s, 5G has held the promise of so much more than its predecessors.

The advent of 3G brought the power of the internet into the palm of our hands, and 4G connected us to each other with real-time sharing of large amounts of data that brought the promise of artificial intelligence, real-time data analytics and digital twinning into the utility space. However, 5G promises to be so much more than just an increase in data speed and data intensity, or more efficient industries – it’s adding capacity to the future of utilities in ways that will drive the future of energy.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 2-2020. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

From a utility point of view, 5G is more than an evolution in communication: It’s an evolution in the construct of the entire energy infrastructure. It represents the potential for utilities to touch every aspect of the industrial and residential consumer value-chain in ways never imagined; and with some estimates predicting over 1.9 billion subscriptions to 5G, and 45% coverage of the global population expected by the end of 2024, it’s likely to be the most rapidly-adopted technology of its kind in history.

It’s easy to understand why. 5G is expected to be 100-times faster, with one-fifth of the latency of 4G., and the opportunity for new capacities in human innovation and quality of life – from smart homes within smart cities managed by an artificially-intelligent, optimised, renewables and storage-powered grid, to autonomous public and private transportation charged at optimal times and rates to ensure levels of demand management – are seemingly endless, and only ever dreamt of before.

For the consumer, it means a life of convenience, ease, the assured reliability of power, a sustainable environment, of quality healthcare resulting from remote surgery, health monitoring and lifestyle management, to optimised, ergonomic working conditions and housing that’s attuned to the need for decarbonisation and climate sustainability.

For industry, it means the seamless integration of independent capacity with seamless, high-intensity data-sharing and process optimisation thanks to AI, machine learning and sustainability.

Utilities are being called upon to take a central role, to take position as pioneers of the new technology that will drive our collective future, ahead of policy, ahead of regulation – but the benefits massively outweigh the price to be paid.

According to a recent paper by software firm Intellias, utilities are set to benefit the most – even more than the manufacturing sector – from the advent of 5G, in how they can both proliferate the future of the technology and use it to their advantage.

How can utilities drive 5G adoption?

Infrastructure:

While 5G can carry much more data at significantly higher speeds, the spectrum has a shorter range than preceding technologies – and that will require a lot more communication infrastructure, closer to the power user, than ever before: – from new signal towers to additions to existing infrastructure, as well as a strong fibre network. Estimates from Charter Communications envisage over 800,000 new small cells will be required by 2025 to spread 5G effectively, and this will require not only additional power, but also fibre backhaul connectivity. These factors present an opportunity to form a critical bridge in the route to smart cities – partnerships with telecommunications companies that will empower new types and faster transmission rates of utility data. Behind the-meter technologies such as self-generation, smart home systems, and smart metering infrastructure have the potential to trade new sources of resilience, demand management and billing in exchange for assured power provision to 5G infrastructure.

Utilities can also bring 5G closer-to-home in new ways. By sharing existing utility infrastructure with new 5G technology, and at the grid’s edge, utilities can deliver 5G services to remote locations, bringing off grid generation in rural areas into the fold in new ways.

The payoffs benefit the pioneers:

As with previous mobile technologies, network operators need new sources of revenue to fund the development of 5G networks, and their offerings to utilities may include Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) and massive Machine to Machine Communications (mMMC).

The areas where 5G may be able to add value to utilities include:

• Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, can be utilised for visual inspections, both for routine maintenance, or for inspections following weather events. Whilst helicopters have been used by larger utilities, operation is expensive, and certain infrastructure is difficult to access. Whilst in many parts of the world drones are still not permitted to be used beyond visual range or autonomously, once regulations have been modernised, the worth of this technology will become invaluable.

• Enhanced and virtual reality: Virtual reality safety helmets have become impressive in terms of their use in maintenance and repairs. Head-up displays and voice activation enable engineers and operatives to access detailed work instructions, videos, manuals, and numerous other data whilst leaving their hands free to work, increasing productivity and accuracy.

Utilities can also construct their own private 5G networks, interworked with infrastructure operated by telecommunications service providers. Other reasons to operate a private network include:

• Being able to operate a network for extended periods, even when the primary source of power is offline

• Improved security over commercial networks

• Lower latency levels

• Wider coverage including remote rural areas, underground sites, and other locations not covered by commercial networks

• Greater security than offered by commercial networks

• Deterministic low latency services

• Coverage into areas not served by commercial operators; for example, remote rural areas, industrial sites with poor coverage, underground locations, tunnels, etc.

The human factor:

There is no denying that the promise of a utopian future has come with concerns.

Environmental impact, additional costs to consumers, and the risk of radiation top the list, but on the whole, the benefits seem to outweigh cynical speculation.

The biggest issue is likely to be cost. The development, deployment, maintenance and energy costs related to the infrastructure required to bring 5G to bear will be expensive, and business cases in existing industries are scant, but developing. Yet, like so many developing technologies – from smart metering to renewable energy, the rise of cryptocurrencies and now the advent of the truly smart city of the future – can we afford not to ride the crest of the wave? SEI