Building a 5G Digital Power Grid

Building a 5G Digital Power Grid

It is often said across the telecoms sector that the main ‘users’ of 5G will in fact be machines rather than people, as the technology has the potential to revolutionise IoT connectivity and automation/AI initiatives across industries. 5G’s applications for smart city planning – and in particular for utilities such as power – are already evident, but we are on the cusp of seeing its potential realised.

To elaborate further, we attended a presentation by Hong Danke, the Head of Power Dispatching and Control Centre at China Southern Power Grid last week, who took us through the company’s 5G transformation journey.

Founded in 2002, China Southern Power Grid provides electricity to provinces including Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou and Hainan. The firm became a 3GPP member in 2018 in order to capitalise on the advent of 5G technology.

This international – and perhaps inevitable – trend of pushing for safer, more reliable and greener energy by implementing more efficient power systems is swaying firms across this somewhat more traditional sector to undergo a digital transformation.

China Southern Power Grid has been developing its own strategy of digital transformation since May 2019, and is pursuing this course as a strategic path towards growth. With consumers increasingly turning towards new forms of energy and services, the firm has had to expand its ICT technology from backbone to end point, which has elevated its need for comprehensive communications.

The firm requires communications networks for its main power network and its distribution grid. Hong explained that while coverage for the former is fairly robust - consisting of an 800 volt direct current network and featuring over 250,000km of optical cables that covers all substations, offices and customer service centres - the coverage for the distribution network is conversely rather weak.

To address this, China Southern Power Grid has been working with China Mobile, conducting research into the potential applications of 5G. It began this process in 2018 and completed validation the following year. Commercial applications are planned for 2020 and 2021.

Hong explained that the firm is actively exploring network slicing, and is in ongoing communication with carriers, with some agreements in place already. He noted that last year the company actively implemented the technology in Shenzhen by setting up the industry’s first end-to-end 5G SA (stand alone) slicing process to support presales, sales and post-sales operations.

In terms of 5G, Hong noted that China Southern Power Grid has identified 53 typical use cases covering transmission, transformation, distribution and consumption. In the first instance, the firm has over 300,000km of transmission infrastructure, with these cables representing around 60-70% of its overall assets. Its business therefore depends on smoothly managing these cables, and to this end it has implemented 5G AI infrared detection to facilitate processes; for example, cables deployed in inaccessible areas can be inspected remotely using 5G technology.

On the transformation side, China Southern Power Grid has over 7,500 substations and the majority of these are unmanned – however, they must all operate reliably in order to ensure the stability of the power grid. To facilitate this, the firm has explored use cases involving patrol robots and drones to make sure the equipment rooms are operation as usual all the time, its trials have shown these technologies to improve efficiency by 2.7 times.

Hong noted that the distribution network has always been the firm’s weakness due to the very wide area that it covers, which makes optical fibre implementation challenging. However, 5G-enabled clock synching mechanisms allow for a different approach that reduces outage time by achieving millisecond-level low latency. Previously, this would have required a wired connection but now control services can be connected wirelessly – a breakthrough in terms of power consumption, as the network covers tens of thousands of houses.

Digital transformation is also having a major impact on the tricky task of metering. Although customers only pay electricity bills once a month, metering needs to be carried out twice daily, which can cause confusion among customers over how data is generated. By making this process more granular, data can be collected from meters every 15 minutes while at the same time customers can view their usage via their phones, seeing when peak rates apply and adjusting their electricity consumption accordingly.

“In the last three years we have identified a lot of benefits, including the efficiency boost in production and operations in the Shenzhen power office”, said Hong. “To further promote the use of 5G in our grid infrastructure we are now working with China Mobile with a plan to build a 103 square kilometre 5G demonstration area, covering the scenarios of power generation, transmission, transformation and distribution. The technical validation has almost been completed in 2019, so we have confidence in the technology. We still need more time to do some business validation but feel confident that we can complete this project, which will enable us to see what the real benefit of the technology can be.”

In addition, the firm is hoping that its trials will help identify an effective business model to serve the power grid industry – as Hong notes, the company is in a time of change and so will likely need to update its practices.

To conclude, Hong said: “5G enabled power grids are something we're working on, and we believe it is a key technology. We will continue to employ 5G in our digital grid infrastructure…and in terms of 5G application models and the technology, we like to work with partners who have advantages in these different areas, to promote new solutions and build the industry benchmark for 5G enabled digital power grids.”