Industrial Automation

Power Utilities: How to Prepare for Time-Sensitive Applications

Emmanuel Waegebaert
Time-sensitive applications are now placing stringent demands on power utilities’ networks. Are you prepared to overcome barriers to support technology like substation automation and wide-area monitoring?


Timing is everything—especially in mission-critical environments like power utilities. When it comes to gathering and transmitting data in these types of conditions, a one-microsecond delay can mean the difference between lights on and lights off.


Today, power utilities rely on many kinds of time-sensitive applications, such as:

  • Substation automation, which enables remote management and control to ensure that power distribution is efficient and responsive to demand
  • Wide-area monitoring systems, which act as the utility’s eyes and ears, preventing overloads by monitoring power flow across vast regions
  • Transmission and distribution management systems, which serve as the backbone of power delivery, ensuring electricity reaches homes and businesses reliably
  • Differential protection, which safeguards electrical equipment by detecting and isolating faults to prevent potential outages or damage
  • Protection relays, which act as watchdogs, identifying and alerting about defective equipment to ensure consistent power delivery
  • Synchrophasors, which act as the utility's high-speed analysts, taking rapid measurements of power conditions to maintain stability
  • Fault detectors, which act as the utility’s detectives, pinpointing the causes of anomalies to ensure swift resolution and minimal disruption


The demands of time-sensitive applications

These time-sensitive applications place stringent demands on networks. As information travels from point A to point B, obstacles like packet delay variation or buffering can get in the way of ensuring that data is shared within a fixed and predictable amount of time.


Here’s a very basic example. Think about sending a note to a friend halfway around the world using a messaging platform like Snapchat, Skype or WhatsApp. Time-sensitive networking (TSN) allows you to send this message from your device so that it appears in real time on your friend’s device. But this guaranteed delivery and minimized jitter can’t happen when timing isn’t accurate.


TSN offers many benefits to modern industrial automation networks by providing high bandwidth and reliable, dependable real-time communication.


In order to ensure correct timing of applications, all equipment between your network’s master clocks and boundary clocks or ordinary clocks must support Precision Time Protocol (PTP), a time-synchronization mechanism as defined in IEEE 1588, Standard for a Precision Clock Synchronization Protocol for Networked Measurement and Control Systems. This protocol allows for time precision within nanoseconds. If just one component in your network doesn’t support PTP, then your network may fail.


This means that your power utility network must be designed to be symmetric—meaning it offers a single route for all incoming and outgoing traffic—with low latency (minimal delays).


In power utilities, timing issues create latency that slows networks down. If networks aren’t designed to support this level of accuracy and precision, then the applications your utility relies on, like those listed above, won’t function properly. This could lead to issues with synchronization, interoperability and data integrity, as well as unplanned outages.


And, of course, these network challenges lead to operational challenges. Why? Because, today, networks are essential in order to coordinate and ensure utility functionality. Because industries of all kinds rely on a utility’s time-sensitive applications, operational issues that lead to downtime can have critical financial and safety implications. For example:

  • Medical equipment, like ventilators, heart monitors and dialysis machines, require uptime to avoid interruption of critical procedures

  • Electric trains, subways or air traffic control can be disrupted, leading to transportation delays or cancellations

  • Banks and ATMs can go offline, preventing people from accessing their money


Overcoming barriers to deploying time-sensitive applications

Time-sensitive applications, time-sensitive networking and PTP protocol are relatively new concepts for power utilities. For this reason, many challenges exist.


Scalability and security are critical concerns. How large can your network grow—and how many endpoints can it manage—while still maintaining accurate timing? How can utilities secure the critical infrastructure that supports time-sensitive applications?


Belden is here to act as your partner, providing you with the knowledge you need, and the network designs to support your time-sensitive applications.


Our high-performance networking solutions support reliable, redundant, secure and ruggedized low-latency networking. We can also help you establish network monitoring through a network management system so that, if something goes wrong with your network, then you know exactly where the issue lies and how to address it.


Belden’s in-house experts provide training and support to help your team get the solutions they need—and know how to confidently operate and maintain them today and in the future.


Learn more about how we can support your time-sensitive applications.


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