Anterix announces first-phase completion of 900 MHz LTE testing in Department of Energy labs
Private LTE networks like the 900 MHz being proposed by Anterix can deliver vital communications reliably to support utilities’ future electric-grid distribution needs, based on the results of a phase-one testing project conducted with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Anterix—formerly known as pdvWireless—last week announced completion of the initial tests, which leveraged the company’s 900 MHz spectrum to provide communications that could let utilities monitor, control and manage renewable energy generated by wind farms and solar panels at the edge of the power grid.
Mike Brozek, senior vice president of technology for Anterix, said the introduction of renewable energy means that utilities need to be able to communicate in real time to balance the supply and demand for electricity throughout the system. NREL has been testing distribution-management options in its labs, but it had used only wired connectivity in its initial testing, he said.
“We said, ‘That’s great, but that’s not the way that these distributed devices are going to communicate with utilities—it’s going to have to be wireless,” Brozek said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “You simply cannot run fiber to every pole, every household, every place where you’re going to need these communications.”
Anterix CEO Morgan O’Brien echoed this sentiment.
“We’re 100% pro-fiber, particularly for the utilities,” O’Brien said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Fiber’s fantastic, and where you can have fiber, fiber’s the way to go. It’s just that, for the last-mile stuff, you need to pair fiber with wireless. We think 900 MHz is the best [option], and that’s what we’re testing.
“As solar and wind become more and more important as forces of power generation … there’s no choice but to operate the grid differently. What they’re testing is LTE as a technology and 900 MHz as a transport [spectrum].”
Anterix has proposed transitioning its 900 MHz narrowband spectrum into a contiguous 3×3 MHz swath that can support LTE. Utilities and other enterprises would lease the spectrum from Anterix within their needed geographical footprint and use it to operate private LTE systems that would prioritize utilities’ critical traffic—a significant issue for utilities, which have resisted the notion of depending on commercial wireless systems.
Anterix is still awaiting approval from the FCC to proceed with its 900 MHz LTE plans, but the agency has granted experimental licenses to the company to conduct broadband testing with the NREL and some utilities, according to O’Brien.
Brozek said the need for low-latency, private LTE communication is necessitated by the changing realities of the power grid. Having communication and automation within an electric system is a familiar concept to utilities, but these features primarily were found only in the portion of the network from the grid’s core generation to the substation level, with the vast majority of the traffic being outward bound to the substation, he said.
However, with renewable-energy options being utilized at the edge of the network—fluctuating as wind and solar generation in those locations varying with weather conditions—the range of communication needs to be extended, and it needs to be near-real-time, two-way communications, Brozek said.
Brozek said the phase-one testing conducted in NREL’s indoor lab went well, demonstrating the reliability and latency of about 30 milliseconds that utilities need to support smart-grid operations.
“Utilities can have confidence that a wireless, private LTE system is going to allow them to control these devices in their distribution network safely and securely,” Brozek said.
“It was very well received, and they definitely understand the importance of modeling a communications system that utilities likely are going to be using to monitor and manage these devices out in the field. They were very pleased with what we were doing.”
Juan Torres, NREL’s Associate Laboratory Director for Energy Systems Integration, agreed.
“Adding more renewable and advanced energy technologies to the grid requires a backbone of secure, reliable communications,” Torres said in a prepared statement. “NREL’s work with Anterix at the Energy Systems Integration Facility is answering questions and identifying scalable solutions to allow communications to keep pace with deployment.”
For electric consumers, this capability means they will have the opportunity to generate electricity from their renewable devices at the edge of the power grid and sell any excess energy to the utility. Meanwhile, the heightened communications can help make the systems more reliable, according to Brozek.
“Outages are shorter in duration and less frequent, because they’re able to isolate where the fault is on the line and then redirect power to get the lights back on [for people not directly impacted by the outage]—and these things are happening much quicker,” he said. “Back in the old days when I started 30 years ago, it required a lineman to go in his truck. Instead of outages lasting hours, now they’re lasting minutes.”
Brozek said the next phase of NREL testing for Anterix will involve providing communications to full Advanced Distribution Management Systems (ADMS).
“What NREL is really trying to do is solve the problems that utilities are going to have. Imagine if half the homes in a utility’s footprint had solar panels on their roofs. That’s a completely different scenario than what we have today, so they really are working on the problems of tomorrow that utilities are going to have to prepare for.
“The Advanced Distribution Management System manages and maintains these devices in the field automatically.”