Great River Energy Fosters Secure, Smart Grid

The electricity cooperative recently selected Full Spectrum to provide its wireless data communications backbone to support critical communications and smart-grid applications.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Nov 15, 2016

Great River Energy provides electricity to 650,000 retail customers (homes, businesses and factories) across 50,000 square miles of rural Minnesota and a small part of Wisconsin, via a network of 28 distribution co-ops, 100 transmission substations and 550 distribution substations.

While the number of end-user customers it serves is relatively low, the complexity of this wholesale power cooperative's operations is quite high, says Jim Jones, Great River Energy's chief information officer and VP of information technology.

Photo courtesy Creative Commons
"We need to communicate with every one of those locations on a real-time basis," Jones explains. In the past, Great River Energy communicated with all of those sites using a number of different technologies, ranging from microwave links to copper telephone lines. The system "was engineered, site by site, over a long period of time. [Decision-makers] found out what the needs were and then plotted the best solution for each location at that time. But we ended up with up to 15 different technologies in use, and multiple connections to the same location."

A decade ago, Great River Energy began transitioning to an updated, more secure and uniform communications infrastructure, based on the use of internet protocol and broadband communications. "We wanted one network that would hook all locations together" and provide an infrastructure for data communications, Jones says.

That infrastructure, now 10 years old, is built largely on a fiber network, but because the area Great River Energy serves is largely rural, getting secure, consistent data communications from the main fiber-based network to the most remote locations in the company's service area presented a challenge. Jones uses a roadway analogy. "It's like a network of interstate roads, to state highways, and then gravel roads," he says. "So we use fiber to form the interstate and state highways, and wireless communications to connect from the state highways down to the gravel roads."

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