There's a cartoon by Sidney Harris you may have seen. Two endpoints of elaborate equations are connected in the middle by the statement "Then a miracle occurs ..."  A series of recent smart grid workshops sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) brings this image to mind. 

At the CPUC, knowledgeable utility and vendor representatives discussed the state's three investor-owned utilities (IOU) Smart Grid Deployment Plans that must be approved by the commission. All three utilities stressed the importance of data to the success of their objectives; data to help consumers optimize their use of electricity; data to help develop markets for widespread adoption of distributed solar assets; real-time data to help balance grid loads through demand response programs; and real-time data to help utilities maintain grid reliability. Though some communications hardware, software and service vendors participated in the discussion, the communications networks perspectives were under-represented in comparison to power grid perspectives. 

Likewise, most industry discussion has focused on the technology, market and policy disruptions impacting the power grid. Attention to the new data communications demands that utilities will place on public and private networks and the ramifications to the networks themselves has been lacking. We need to ensure that we don't rely on "miracles," and that the networks and critical management tools will be there to support grid modernization and deliver the full benefits of the smart grid.   

Already there's growing awareness that some advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network deployments are unable to deliver real-time information to utility operations systems and mobile workforces with the necessary granularity. Given this knowledge, can we really be sure that future residential demand response (DR) programs will be able to effectively signal all registered devices for load reduction or load balancing? Can we be sure that the mission-critical data signals validating the load reductions or increments are received in a timely fashion to avoid the unwelcome consequences of mismatches? 

Utility resources responsible for communication networks face multiple challenges that include tracking data speeds and feeds from multiple vendors of new and legacy network equipment, coupled with multiple modes of wired and wireless transport. Some of these networks are custom-built and are outliers in terms of typical performance expectations. Communication network management involves an element of grabbing a tiger by its tail as we expect to see explosive data growth due to the proliferation of machine to machine (M2M), vehicle to grid (V2G) and grid to vehicle (G2V) traffic, as well as load balancing (DR signals to devices) applications.  

The smart grid needs reliable, timely and cost-effective data flows to support reliable, safe and cost-effective electron flows. The data only flows if the communication networks that overlay the transmission and distribution power grids have the appropriate capacities, the relevant business rules to define quality of service (QoS) and event-variable prioritization of data transmission, and sophisticated network management systems and analytics solutions to maintain optimal network health.   

These are not intractable problems. Traditional communications service providers—i.e., the public networks—have been operating networks under these challenging and dynamically changing conditions for two decades. They use network management systems (NMS) and analytics solutions with the flexibility and scalability to accommodate new and legacy utility networks. These solutions can deliver situational awareness that spans both communications networks and power grids and correlates data from these two different systems to give a true "network of networks" perspective that is needed for smart grid operations.  

(Full disclosure: I have a telecom background, thus my expertise in this area, and I have clients who are vendors in this space. I believe it's important to leverage their experience to raise this issue.)

For example, communications service providers use advanced analytics to prioritize critically important data and optimize routes for delivery of that data. Advanced analytics solutions also examine bit error rates and response times for devices across networks to gauge data reliability and network performance. Today, NMS solutions in place in public networks distribute intelligence across those networks to manage complex event processing as close to the source as possible and minimize monitor and control traffic. These combined solutions reduce costs, improve the reliability and quality of service (QoS) delivery and provide network situational awareness. Flexible, adaptable and carrier-class NMS and advanced analytics solutions can do the same for utility network operations.

Utilities should leverage the expertise and experience of carrier-class NMS and analytics solution providers to minimize the learning curves and avoid costly network operations mistakes that hurt ratepayers, bottom lines and smart grid objectives.

Christine Hertzog is managing director of the Smart Grid Library and author of the Smart Grid Dictionary and The Smart Grid Consumer Focus Strategy. She consults for smart grid startups and established vendors, investor groups and utilities.