Elster’s innovative communication technology supports intelligent power systems


By Mike Longrie

Realising the vision and potential of the smart grid will depend largely upon being able to leverage the most advanced communications technologies while building on a foundation of security and industry standards.

A smart grid deployment is a significant investment for utilities. A key question taxing utility executives is how to invest wisely in smart grid technology that will survive for many years, without the risk of being rendered obsolete by new technologies or insecure by newly emerging cyber security threats. The challenge is compounded even further when legacy systems are factored into a utility’s smart grid decisions.

Technology change is inevitable, and as communications technologies evolve, greater network speeds make possible new applications such as controlling thermostats and electrical appliances in the home, balancing network load and enabling consumers to reduce their energy usage during peak hours, and optimising demand, among others.

Concurrently, with bandwidth intensive requirements comes the possibility that new technologies may render existing systems obsolete. Utilities might feel compelled to replace meters, network infrastructure, and other devices much sooner than anticipated. As a result, the longevity and return of the utility’s investment could significantly diminish.

This risk is greatly reduced when a system doesn’t rely on a single communication technology but instead incorporates and adapts to new technologies and has the flexibility to manage multiple networks and be integrated with certain legacy systems that still have useful life.

New technologies are certainly exciting, but without a sound platform from which to be implemented, these new technologies could create potential reliability and security risks when deployed. This is why the smart grid needs to support standards that enable device interoperability, and allow use of standard software tools for system management, but don’t sacrifice data security or system integrity.

In current smart grid systems, technologies such as IP networking, ANSI C12.19 data protocols, and standard data encryption techniques are already in use by many providers. The industry is also contemplating what role wireless standards such as ZigBee for home area networking and 802.15.4 for neighbourhood area networking will play in smart grid deployments. As the smart grid continues to mature and evolve, the picture for standards, security and interoperability will become clear. A key factor for utilities to consider is how adaptable today’s smart grid systems are in supporting what is certain to be a changing landscape for standards and interoperability.

To that end, Elster has designed its EnergyAxis™ System to accommodate a host of new technologies and network configurations that optimise their use, reduce costs, improve performance, and meet utility needs today and into the future. With more than 70 systems reading close to 4 million smart meters on a daily basis, Elster has enhanced EnergyAxis to address current customer needs as well as include key functionality to support the evolving needs of the smart grid.

EngeryAxis 7.0
Elster’s leadership in smart metering and smart grid continues with the release of EnergyAxis 7.0. This latest release provides numerous enhancements to core system capabilities critical to those looking to implement smart grid capabilities while managing the risks of technical evolution.

Best in class 900 MHz mesh network
In EnergyAxis 7.0 Elster has enhanced the LAN with larger packet sizes and increased the data rate to 142 kbps making the EnergyAxis mesh best-in-class when compared to similar 900 MHz mesh networks. Even though current EnergyAxis networks utilise a very small percent of available bandwidth, Elster enhanced the EnergyAxis LAN to stay well ahead of the expected increase in network traffic as additional smart grid applications are implemented in the years to come.

The EnergyAxis 7.0 LAN enhancements are backward compatible so that the more mature deployments among Elster’s more than 70 EnergyAxis customers are not required to replace any hardware to maintain their current levels of performance.

IP support
IP has always been a key architectural element of the EnergyAxis System. EnergyAxis has supported WAN devices through IP communications for many years. EnergyAxis 7.0 includes LAN enhancements allowing transparent IP communications across the EnergyAxis mesh. LAN devices support IPv6 endpoint addressability and EnergyAxis is capable of protocol tunnelling to support legacy utility protocols such as DNP.

Network robustness
EnergyAxis 7.0 includes two features in EA gatekeepers engineered specifically to enhance reliability and network redundancy. EA gatekeepers now establish dual and independent qualified paths to each network device so that if communications through the first path is severed, the communications will immediately switch to the second path. The gatekeeper also actively monitors the health of its WAN connection to the head-end. If the WAN link is lost, the gatekeeper assures unbroken communications to the utility head-end system by releasing all devices on its sub-network and instructing the nodes to register to another gatekeeper.

Over the air upgrades
EnergyAxis provides enterprise capability to remotely upgrade device communications and metrology firmware via a robust over the air (OTA) upgrade capability. Utilities are not only protected from changes in technology, but also avoid costly field visits to implement new features.

New WAN interface cards
The EnergyAxis System has historically incorporated a great deal of flexibility in WAN communications options providing utilities with numerous network design and implementation choices. Building on existing WAN flexibility, EnergyAxis 7.0 introduces the EA WAN interface card or EA WIC. The EA WIC is a smart and secure WAN solution that currently supports Ethernet, CDMA, and GSM for point-to-point connected meters or for WAN backhaul purposes. The EA WICs will be available for Elster’s network gatekeepers as well as A3 ALPHA C&I meters starting in April.

energyaxis system

EnergyAxis System overview

Enhanced security
Smart Grid security is a critical topic and key concern for utilities as they look to implement smart grid systems. With EnergyAxis 7.0 Elster has developed an end-to-end security architecture with proven and standards-based encryption technology to secure AMI enterprise and network communication. By layering standardsbased security protocols and Elster architectural design, the EnergyAxis System provides an extremely secure solution that is architected to provide preventative measures against common cyber security issues. This secures the data as it travels through the networks and protects the grid against rogue “commands” from outside elements.

Standards and interoperability
In EnergyAxis 7.0 Elster has expanded protocol support with the ANSI C12.22 standard to handle EA WAN network element communication furthering compliance with the ANSI C12 standards suite.

Voltage conservation support
Transmission and distribution losses of 4 percent to 6 percent are common in most electrical distribution systems. Voltage conservation mitigates some of the distribution system losses and can now be implemented using the EnergyAxis System as an enabler by:

  • Providing the data necessary to make voltage adjustments at substations; and
  • Continuously monitoring lowest voltage customers, enabling utilities to reduce power transformer and line losses along distribution circuits.

With EnergyAxis support for voltage conservation, utilities can more efficiently manage customer voltage ranges and adapt to growth as customers are added to the system. Benefits from voltage conservation also extend to end consumers and the environment. A proprietary utility study has projected that a voltage conservation programme when fully implemented could save enough energy to potentially power 3 percent of their residential customers every year.

Polyphase load control support
Another creative application included in EnergyAxis 7.0 is support for remote load control for polyphase systems such as irrigation pumps located in isolated agricultural settings. To support this feature in a 480 V service required a completely new hardware solution and a change to traditional AMI network deployment models. After extensive field testing with key customers this feature is now generally available in EnergyAxis 7.0.

Demand response support
EnergyAxis 7.0 now enables utilities to execute a classic demand response programme through an AMI network. The ability to control, verify, and measure results in a “real time” environment offers significant advantages for utilities. These same benefits are not available through the implementation of traditional one-way technologies.

User interface enhancements
Feedback from our user community has driven several usability enhancements to the EnergyAxis management system. EnergyAxis 7.0 includes geographic-based data visualisation for easier network management and monitoring. Additional reporting capability and dashboards provides detailed network statistics, improving utility management of deployed devices and infrastructure.

Outage management
Distributed intelligence is a key feature that has been implemented throughout the EnergyAxis System. For outage management EnergyAxis 7.0 gatekeepers now filter redundant outage and restoration event messages, streamlining data management requirements at the EnergyAxis head-end. The EnergyAxis management system will also filter duplicate outage and restoration event messages received for the entire gatekeeper population, eliminating redundant messages being sent to utility outage management systems.

“EnergyAxis was the first true AMI system on the market and has proven itself in the field since 2004,” said David Hart, Elster Solutions, senior vice president of quality and products. “These enhancements are significant leaps forward in terms of network performance, security and robustness and demonstrate Elster’s ongoing commitment to creating enabling solutions for the smart grid.

“By providing multiple technology options based on open standards, Elster’s EnergyAxis solution offers diversification, which in turn mitigates the risk of obsolescence as technologies evolve. By virtue of its flexible architecture, EnergyAxis meets today’s needs and is primed to adapt to customers’ needs of the future. EnergyAxis is designed for flexibility and interoperability to enable customers to take advantage of technical and economic changes throughout the operating life of the system. And as evidenced by the significant enhancements implemented in EnergyAxis 7.0, utilities can be assured that Elster will continue to deliver real, working solutions for the smart grid.”