Is wireless technology becoming critical to the transformation of the energy sector?

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) published its UK Wireless Infrastructure Strategy on 11 April 2023.

The strategy highlights the role of next-generation wireless technology in transforming key economic sectors and ensuring that the UK remains competitive in the digital age. 

An aspect of the strategy that caught our eye – as we have been investing in developing our capability – is the area where the strategic interdependence between the Energy and Telecoms sectors is evident. The DSIT strategy identifies the adoption of advanced wireless technology to enable the transformation of the energy system from a passive to an active system, which is referred to as Energy System 4.0. Secure, reliable, and resilient connectivity is seen as a catalyst for this transformation, which will help the UK achieve its net-zero target by 2050. 

The government strategy is well targeted in identifying the Electricity Distribution Network Operator as a potential beneficiary from 5G and the introduction of 5G -Standalone underpinning the connectivity approach. 

Private networks built on 5G technology are capable of providing secure, reliable and resilient wireless connectivity more details on Private Networks can be found here 

Private Network Market Trends 

The wireless industry is anticipating significant growth in private networks and adoption by the Energy sector. A recent ABI report projects a revenue opportunity for private cellular networks that grow from almost US$7 billion in 2023 to more than US$96 billion by 2030. 4G LTE – which must not be overlooked as being more than adequate for several applications – will be a driver, but post 2025 5G growth becomes significant as more industrial-grade devices and equipment hit the right price points.  

Many anticipate the utility Industries will be one of the leading sectors in the adoption of 5G technology (5G Energy Industry: Deloitte Lays Out Massive Opportunities Ahead – Industrial Innovation (industrial-innovation.com)  

Key Requirements 

The Electricity Distribution Network Operator is undergoing a transition to a more complex operating model and will become the Distribution System Operator (DSO). New concepts are emerging in flexible distributed energy resources (DER), energy storage systems and low-carbon technology. More sensors will be needed as data sources are integrated with systems, which will create heterogeneous datasets. 

There is potential for an increase in complexity and therefore potentially cost and deployment delays. Given the UK’s experience with the Smart Meter rollout, these risks will need to be carefully managed. The vision of the energy sector however is that a suitably secure connectivity technology that connects people, devices and systems together is required which will enable the flow of data and information to drive efficient operations. 

Vendors and System Integrators are now positioning private 5G networks as a sufficiently capable platform to meet all the necessary requirements for the successful operation of the Electricity Network. These requirements include: 

  1. Coverage 

  2. Security

  3. Capacity

  4. High level of Service Availability
     
  5. Resilience  

  6. Low latency  

As the Energy Sector undergoes a transformation to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy future, the right choices need to be made on the spectrum, technology and deployment topology to secure the required capability as well as RoI. The sector’s requirements are different from a public mobile network but for Real Wireless, having invested in the development of our own wireless network modelling and simulation tools, we can rapidly assess network costs to meet the Energy Sector’s requirements. We can also ‘compare and contrast’ the various engineering choices and options that lie ahead.  

We are carefully monitoring the following areas as they are going to be instrumental in deciding the technology strategy for the Energy Sector: 

  1. Future technologies

  2. Increasing Asset Life – Longevity

  3. Open Standards (Global standards e.g., 3GPP, ETSI, GSMA)

  4. Supplier diversification

  5. Platform for innovation

  6. Value for money  

3GPP Release 16 is a step forward for 5G NR and looks well specified to address the Energy Sector needs: 

  • Enhanced ultra-reliable, low-latency communication (eURLLC): Rel-16 enhances the 5G URLLC foundation to deliver even better link reliability (up to 99.9999%). 
  • Integrated access and backhaul (IAB): Rel-16 introduce IAB, which allows 5G NR to be used for both access and backhaul. This can improve network efficiency and reduce costs. 
  • Non-public network (NPN): Rel-16 defines NPNs, which are private 5G networks that can be used by industry to increase security, improve performance, and reduced latency. 
  • Time-sensitive networking (TSN): Rel-16 supports TSN, which is a set of standards for ensuring that time-sensitive data is transmitted reliably and on time. This makes 5G NR even more suitable for applications that require deterministic performance. 

There is still a period of time before the provisioning of full feature 3GPP Release 16 in operational networks is market ready. Certification of industrial application modules that support this release started in 2022 – this has yet to reach full maturity. Our study on private networks for the Digital Catapult in 2022 indicated that there is still some fragmentation in the market to be overcome. 

The general case for 5G Standalone networks is enhanced by consideration of the needs of the Energy Sector, some joined-up thinking with the MNOs should help to increase cross-sector skills in the understanding of the deployment and application of 5G Standalone. Thoughts are already well advanced in the Energy Sector as evidenced by trials in 2021 by the National Renewal Energy Laboratory (NREL) NREL Study Explores the Security Benefits of 5G for Distributed Energy Operations | News | NREL 

Our view is the DSIT Wireless Infrastructure Strategy is right to be pointing to this opportunity to help the energy sector improve efficiency, reduce costs, and increase safety by providing a secure, reliable, and high-performance network for its mission-critical applications.