The future of smart grid networking

How is new innovation helping utility network operators keep pace with quickly changing energy markets?
Ulrich Kohn
Worker standing by power grid

The old model of centralized energy production and distribution is a thing of the past. Taking its place is the smart grid – a decentralized, distributed model that enables hybrid energy production to be spread across a wide geographical area. Battery storage is now more common, as is small-scale renewables-based power generation. And energy can now even flow bidirectionally, turning many consumers into "prosumers" – both producers and consumers of power. 

The smart grid has many other advantages and one of the most attractive among them – to power companies at least – is the potential to operate the grid closer to maximum capacity despite the higher complexity from many decentralized power generation sites with difficult predictability. But this hinges on companies being able safely and effectively manage their grids. And for that to happen operators need to transition away from legacy communication and control solutions and incorporate a range of new technologies into their network architectures. 

Network solutions powering smart grids 

Energy companies are still using TDM-technologies such as PDH and SDH in their communication networks, which were designed for connection-oriented voice networks. The digital transformation is happening now with data technologies such as IP and MPLS becoming the network technologies, making it easier to provide connectivity among the rapidly increasing number of sites, components, and devices in an energy network. To meet growing bandwidth needs, open optical DWDM transport is enabling the data network to satisfy current demand and secure future growth.

Multi technology packet-optical connectivity network diagram

Grids are more reliant than ever on accurate timing and synchronization. This is especially important as sophisticated control depends on precisely timestamped measurements of voltage and current values at every part of the energy network. This synchrophasor data enables precise control but also provides accurate information about the health of the smart power grid. 

IRIG and NTP-based timing has long been the technology of choice for power grid timing and sync. But now that more accuracy is required, operators are increasingly integrating solutions based on Precision Time Protocol (PTP) into networks. And because GNSS – often the primary source of network timing – is highly vulnerable to cyberattacks, they are having to deploy more effective backup systems; robust alternative sources of timing capable of supplying accurate holdover for long periods. At the core of the timing architecture, enhanced primary reference time clocks (ePRTCs) combine robust and resilient GNSS receiver technology with ultra-stable cesium atomic clocks for holdover even in the case of extended GNSS outages.

The right way to transition 

So what’s the best way for utility network operators to keep pace with the rapidly evolving energy market? Well, it’s important to remember that legacy architectures can’t be upgraded overnight. Migration is a gradual process, but it’s the choices utility companies make now that will determine just how smooth and cost-effective that migration is.

The key thing for operators is to select technologies that blend seamlessly with legacy architectures. That means building networks in a disaggregated and open way while leveraging technology that is easily upgradeable and backwards-compatible. 

Open optical DWDM transport systems are an efficient way to underly legacy SDH networks and add new IP and MPLS networks in parallel. This provides a seamless migration towards the latest data technologies without requiring extensive investment in the fiber plant. While these optical transport systems support resiliency, independent monitoring of the fiber solution is a sensible investment to simplify fault isolation and shorten repair cycles.


The current best-in-class smart grid solutions combine interoperability with operational simplicity and resilient design. For timing and sync in next-generation networks, technology that has a PTP power profile is recommended and there are solutions available that also include NTP servers and IRIG-B interfaces to ensure a seamless migration from legacy architectures. And to provide an anchor point for resilient and accurate timing, a redundant ePRTC in the core, which leverages cesium atomic clock technology, offers the precision and protection that mission-critical communication networks need.


This network transformation is not an easy task. It requires expertise in several new technology domains. A management solution that consistently supports any technology evolution with the optical, packet and also timing domain, is considered to be a highly valuable asset.

Electric dreams

The key to future-proofing utility communications networks is to accelerate the move away from proprietary technology and embrace a more open, disaggregated model. The list of benefits is endless and I began by mentioning a few, but of course, there are many more. 

Needless to say that the digital transformation of the power grid is about enabling both the use of cloud technologies that leverage hyperscale data centers and also cloud technology at substations and small decentralized power plants. The consumption and production of energy will be combined with electrical mobility, creating a new dimension to the metaverse: the “energyverse.” And it could be key to helping us all live smarter and more sustainably.

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