Electric Utilities Dip Toes Into Emerging Technology
Several systems designed to piggyback high-speed data transmissions over power lines are in field trials around the country and, paradoxically, if they are successful they could breathe new life into the fiber-optic cable market.
Electric utility companies in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and elsewhere have trial installations with clusters of Internet users receiving their e-mail and surfing the Web over power lines coming into their homes and offices. Their modems don't plug into cable devices, telephone jacks or satellite dishes; they plug into any wall outlet at hand.
Power line modems for consumers, designed to turn household circuits into local area networks within dwellings or offices, are already on retail shelves. The devices distribute Internet service that has been delivered by cable modem or other high-speed connections to the customers.
The new hardware and software that electric utilities are testing works with similar modems inside buildings, but cuts local telephone and cable companies out of the business of moving the data. Instead, the Internet is tapped at a fiber-optic node somewhere within a mile or two of the end users. Data is converted through a processor and routed over medium- and low-voltage electric distribution circuits for "last mile" delivery to consumers. The systems hinge on further penetration of fiber-optic line directly into neighborhoods around the country.
"The actual technology itself, I am not concerned with. I'm pretty sure its going to work. But we still have to understand the business and cost model," says Lief Ericson, business development manager for Southern Telecom, Atlanta.
"The opportunity could be significant if the vendors really pull the technology to a stage where the utilities feel comfortable deploying it. There are very few competitors in the last mile arena, just regional Bells and cable companies. This is a third wire into the house," says Ericson, whose company is a subsidiary of energy giant Southern Co., Atlanta. The Telecom unit markets long-haul and dark fiber in metropolitan areas.
Power line communication, as the technology is known, has been used by utilities for many decades for high-voltage system control and information feedback over the distribution grid. The new wrinkle for PLC is that growing consumer and business demand for high bandwidth communication is creating a distribution opportunity over medium- and low-voltage lines. Power companies are naturally positioned to meet the demand. The power-line delivery system also has a substantial inherent advantage over conventional alternatives: speed. It is about 20 times faster than a standard telephone modem connection in uploading and downloading transmissions.
Consolidated Edison Co. of New York Inc., New York City, has a small test site in Westchester County, north of New York City. The trial deployment ties into the fiber-optic data stream at a local substation and distributes data on a 4-kv circuit serving about 400 homes. Only two homes, on different circuit branches, have been connected so far. But part of the system's attraction is that all the others could now easily be connected, since the Internet service is already pulsing in the wire on the pole outside. Click here to view chart
George Jee, ConEd director of resource planning, says more users will be given the chance to come on line as the trial scales up over the next few months. The picture is similar at many other utilities around the country, as a handful of vendors compete to supply the technology and services, and utilities carefully test small deployments.
|MULTI-USE ConEd's Jee with Ambient pole-mounted PLC bypass processor. It can also help monitor system.|
Ericson says utilities "are very, very conservative," and have only begun "to come out of the closet" with their interest in PLC over the last year. "The standards are being established as we speak. It is a slow, methodical process," he says. Southern is also moving its testing from the lab to the field and is looking at devices from six vendors, Ericson says. Last August, the firm announced a comprehensive testing agreement of PLC technology with Main.net Power Line Communications Ltd., Reston, Va.
ConEd has already put its money on another vendor's technology, that of Ambient Corp., Brookline, Mass. ConEd bought 50% of Ambient's outstanding stock for $1.4 million in early October.
Ambient uses a proprietary induction coupling, whose prototype design is being refined, to get data on and off power lines without having to break and make hard connections. The couplings are used to create loops to bypass data around transformers, such as those between medium-voltage transmission circuits and low-voltage service lines. The couplings clamp onto the line and can be installed with a glove or hotstick from a bucket, says Jee.
If the last mile problem is solved by PLC, the fiber-optic build-out may resume to bring fiber into more neighborhoods and to run cable to other logical distribution points, such as electric substations.
"This is not a long-haul scenario. It's a last-mile product," says Ericson. "It's not so much a question of construction, [it's] more a matter of implementation, maintenance and replacement of PLC equipment, plus the leveraging of fiber-optic assets. The utmost distance you will get out of PLC is about 2 miles."
Jee says the utilities are intrigued because PLC would not only leverage lines already installed but would open up new control and communication potential for utility uses, such as remote meter reading and household and commercial energy management. Backup batteries built into the relay boxes and processors of the system will also provide an independent test circuit to monitor equipment and check distribution circuit integrity. System software running on battery backup will clearly pinpoint line breakage on otherwise dead circuits during outages and storm emergencies.
Ericson says there are many reasons electric companies are interested. "One of the real value propositions as we move forward is that outside of the fact that the utilities have wires to every room in the house, everything in the house that plugs into the wall, in theory, can be in communication with every other device," notes Ericson.
Pennsylvania Power and Light Corp., Allentown, is anticipating leveraging about 700 miles of fiber-optic cable it already has built to support utility and powerplant operations. The fiber rings its service area, says company spokesman George Lewis. In September, the company started a PLC test with 25 residential customers near Allentown, but it has eyes on a much bigger prize.
"We are intending to start out small," says project manager Jon Loe. "Really, at this point we're just assessing the feasibility of the technology, that it's a good product, that it works, and, if we are going to attach our company name and take it to the market, that it is something our customers would want."
Main.net is providing hardware. "They are giving us the equipment and PPL employees are doing the installation," Loe says. "They're providing the boxes and our people are putting them up."
"The potential is there," Loe adds. "[We] know there are about 20,000 office and commercial buildings within a half-mile of that fiber ring. That's pretty good to start with," he says.