Using BPL to leverage unexploited electrical networks to the smart grid and beyond


By Sam Alfassy

Broadband powerline communication (BPL) technology seems to be the ideal tool to enable 21st century utility operation demand, should it meet the following initial definitions: a) increase the network resolution beyond the high voltage (HV) and medium voltage (MV) grid by extending the reach to the low voltage (LV) grid up to the end-user premises; b) create a web-based network; and c) enable re-use of the existing digital metering systems to avoid any unnecessary expenses on infrastructure.

MainNet’s BPL solution meets all these challenges uniquely, providing an end-to-end web-based BPL system that enables real time, two way information flow from the utility’s network operational centre (NOC) over the MV and LV grids up to the end user’s premises. MainNet’s solution turns any digital meter or AMR data concentrator into an IP-enabled meter, whether it has serial or IP and wired or wireless interface. Thus, utilities can not only power their existing electricity grids for a wide range of smart grid applications including theft and tamper detection, but also they can offer broadband Internet and Voice over IP (VoIP) services to their subscribers, turning every electrical socket into a broadband gateway to the worldwide web.

Utilities around the world are facing enormous revenue losses in both emerging countries and developed countries such as the US and Australia.

Electricity theft results in a shortage of power and in turn power cuts due to load shedding, as demand exceeds the supply capabilities. As economic growth leads to greater energy consumption the problem is likely to get worse. Meanwhile, power theft brings losses to the electricity companies, which in some countries are close to bankruptcy, collectively losing $4.5 billion a year. A key problem to date has been an almost complete lack of effective auditing and accounting which could identify where the theft problems occur.

Implementing BPL technology-based network systems allows utilities to reconcile electricity delivered with electricity purchased. Moreover, a BPL solution powered by an advanced network management system enables real time data reading and accurate data analysis. The ability to “see” through the entire grid with BPL makes it ideal as an immediate solution for detecting power theft or tampering simply by comparing the quantity of power supplied to the transformer station with the total read remotely by the electrical meters. In turn power shortages are eliminated and revenue losses reduced.

BPL-based networks carry high speed data over the same electrical grid as that used for carrying electricity to households. For utilities, BPL technology boosts the existing electricity grid to create an additional source of revenue, either by leasing the grid to telecoms operators or by directly providing broadband communication services, and thus realising the vision of “web access for all” and making information available for everyone, everywhere through Internet and VoIP services as well as on-line gaming and video streaming.


BPL/PLC network architecture (typical European 220 V topology)

Broadband access communications
A typical broadband access communication system comprises a central unit (CU) installed at the MV/LV transformer station head-end and customer premises equipment (CPE) and network termination unit (NT) at the consumer end. In an electrical grid it is often necessary to install repeaters to overcome its noisy environment and avoid loss of data signals. These repeaters can also serve as connection points to various network termination devices other than the CPE, such as surveillance cameras and WiFi hot spots. If equipped with a comprehensive web-based network management system (NMS), all these units and the data traffic over the grid can be remotely managed and controlled to provide always-on data monitoring and analysis. An advanced NMS will also provide a seamless interface to the utility’s OSS and advanced meter management (AMM) to enable better customer care services.

Equipped with a smart repetition mechanism, BPL repeaters can be used to extend the reach of communication networks from the backhaul (fibre, WiMax or satellite) through the SCADA units over the medium and low voltage grids, all the way up to the subscriber’s premises. Moreover, an advanced BPL solution can be used to establish wireless extensions for indoor or outdoor networks in urban and rural areas, thus providing an economical solution for the last mile broadband access communication.

MDU/MTU and home networking
Multi-dwelling/tenant and home owners can use every electrical socket as a broadband gateway to provide instant access to the web by implementing a BPL-based network. Not being affected by line-of-sight issues, it can be used wherever WiFi or hotspot coverage is not feasible.

This type of system design enables rapid implementation to reach the desirable vision of a smart home, with new value added applications such as security and surveillance anywhere on the premises as well as improved heating and cooling control for energy saving – all with no interference to the premises’ daily operations.

In this way BPL technology will enable utilities to leverage their core business (electricity, gas, etc.) to offer advanced broadband communication services to all, which is also consistent with the call from governments around the world for closing the digital divide and the urban-rural gap.

To catch up and stay ahead in today’s fast paced market, utilities must better manage and control their grids as well as look for new revenue resources. Advanced smart grid applications enable utilities to improve power demand management. However, implementing these applications using web-based broadband powerline communication technologies paves the way for them to execute a future automated metering infrastructure today.

With advanced BPL-based smart grid systems utilities can use their existing grids, saving on both network planning and infrastructure and thus making it the most cost effective solution available. It also enables them to upgrade their smart grid applications beyond meter reading to include the ability to detect theft and tampering as it occurs, as well as real time restoration of electricity outages. In addition utilities can use their upgraded web-based infrastructure to create new businesses offering broadband access communication solutions and security and surveillance applications.