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Why proven and secure industrial IP/MPLS is the best choice for mission-critical grid modernization

Why proven and secure industrial IP/MPLS is the best choice for mission-critical grid modernization

Power utilities around the world are embarking on modernization projects to bring more reliability, visibility and sustainability to their energy grids. Many are making IP/MPLS networks a central element of those projects: Ameren in the United States, Fingrid in Finland and Stedin in the Netherlands, Red Electrica in Spain, just to name a few recent examples.

So what drove these companies to embrace IP/MPLS, especially when some utilities are still wary of it, concerned that internet protocol (IP) services are not as proven or secure as traditional technologies such as leased lines based on copper cables? They’ve realized the concerns about IP/MPLS are completely unfounded — and that by making IP/MPLS key to their grid modernization efforts, they can see significant business benefits.

20 years proven and counting

IP/MPLS is not some new, untested technology that appeared overnight. It was established by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) way back in 1997, when the Backstreet Boys were topping the charts, the flip phone was brand new and Netscape Navigator was the web browser of choice for our Windows 95 PCs.

In the nearly 25 years since then, IP/MPLS has been continuously hardened and improved, trusted by the world’s top communications service providers (CSPs) for well over a decade as the foundation for mission-critical government and industrial networks.

Securing the world’s largest and most important networks

One of the main reasons for that trust is security. With IP/MPLS using some of the world’s largest and most important networks as a proving ground, its ability to be secured has constantly evolved to keep pace with cyberthreats. As the technology has been adopted by more CSPs, new ways to secure packet networks have been developed and made more robust. Today’s IP/MPLS networks have extensive integrated security features that help utilities defend against cyberthreats, ensure data privacy, and comply with regulations and standards such as NERC CIP (North American Electric Reliability Corporation – Critical Infrastructure Protection).

This matters because if the grid goes dark due to hackers, saboteurs or a massive fault, so do the internet, e-commerce, global markets and much more. The power utility industry is already one of the most hardened in terms of its careful analysis of change impact and the actions taken to ensure both the safety and reliability of power delivery. For utilities looking to monitor their substations with high-definition video or encrypt data generated by the grid, choosing a legacy technology such as TDM SDH/SONET over the more advanced, always-evolving IP/MPLS would be like securing a safe with a manual bike lock instead of the latest biometric, blockchain-based security controls.

A driver of digital transformation for leading utilities

Beyond the essentials of grid security, the other advantage of IP/MPLS is that it can support the kinds of smart grid applications power utilities are looking to deploy to modernize their communications, improve grid control and monitoring, and digitally transform transmission and distribution. It provides the flexibility to seize opportunities arising from Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) — along with the agility needed for enhanced grid automation, augmented reality maintenance and digital twins. Together, the agility and flexibility of IP/MPLS allows utilities to embrace new grid innovations at speed and scale for asset performance and efficiency optimization, while exploring new business models. 

One utility that has seen these benefits first-hand is Ameren, which powers 2.4 million electric customers and more than 900,000 natural gas customers in the U.S. states of Missouri and Illinois. Ameren began to roll out a private fiber IP/MPLS network along its transmission lines in 2017, connecting substations, operations centers and other critical locations as part of its digital transformation strategy.

With IP/MPLS, Ameren has been able to improve the quality of its teleprotection application, ensuring substations respond quickly if there is a fault on the line — ultimately boosting service quality and reliability. The IP/MPLS fiber network also extends Ameren’s service, security and management environments into the distribution grid, with the company planning for a private LTE (P-LTE) network to enable advanced automation, Internet of Things and workforce mobility applications. Ameren won the 2020 Utility Technology Council APEX award for its groundbreaking Nokia-powered P-LTE trial.

Ameren isn’t the only utility to implement IP/MPLS. Among many others, Fingrid of Finland will be using the technology as the backbone of a new smart grid to manage the growing adoption of variable distributed energy resources (DERs) such as wind, solar and bio-energy. In the Netherlands, Stedin Groep has similar plans, working with Nokia to test an IP/MPLS network that will overcome the bottlenecks it currently faces when interconnecting DERs with the main grid while also enabling new capabilities such as substation automation.

Spain’s Red Electrica is building out an IP/MPLS network and a new optical transport network to support next-gen IP-based applications including IoT asset management, distributed energy management and more. And the Greek national grid operator, IPTO, is making a similar move, rolling out a nationwide IP/MPLS network for substation control, protection and automation.

These companies have seen the future: one of a modernized energy grid that is intelligent, adaptive and highly secure, with reliable, scalable IP/MPLS technology at its core. With the clear benefits IP/MPLS can offer over TDM SDH/SONET and other legacy technologies, we at Nokia believe it is the best technology to take any power utility into the future — and it’s only a matter of time until utilities’ last lingering doubts about it are wiped away completely.

For more on this topic, see my article in Power Engineering, download our e-book on the topic or visit our website for power utility modernization.

Dominique  Verhulst

About Dominique Verhulst

Dominique Verhulst is global head of the utilities vertical at Nokia, leveraging the full portfolio of networking solutions, analytics and professional services to provide end-to-end solutions to utility companies. He is the author of the “Teleprotection over Packet Networks” e-book, available on the iTunes bookstore, and the co-author of several publications from the University of Strathclyde.
Dominique has more 30 years of experience in the telecommunications networking industry, holding senior sales and marketing positions at Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Newbridge Networks, Ungermann-Bass and Motorola.

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