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LTE Operational Efficiencies Save Thousands for ElectriCities

"LTE offered enormous cost savings over our legacy copper connections. Digi was the logical choice for secure, reliable communication with our members’ meters and generators."

John Coates, EMS Application Engineer
ElectriCities services 90 member municipalities and 1.2 million customers throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.

ElectriCities of NC is a not-for-profit organization that provides a range of technical services to support power services throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, including emergency assistance, training, safety and communications for 90 member municipalities and 1.2 million customers.

The company maintains a complex network covering thousands of square miles, and collecting data from an array of meters, generators and telemetry equipment to offer comprehensive communications and management services to its member utilities.

ElectriCities also supplies management services to both North Carolina Municipal Power Agency Number 1 (NCMPA1) and North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency (NCEMPA).

Business Challenge

The primary business challenges facing ElectriCities included the ability to provide the most reliable service to their customers, given the vulnerability of power networks to issues such as weather events, and the ability to scale and grow their coverage area and service offerings.

They were heavily reliant on legacy infrastructure, such as T1 circuits and 56k modems. If a tree fell, pulling down a POTS line, it might be days or weeks before the communication utilities would arrive at the site for a service call. Since the legacy system was unreliable, and there was a high cost involved in traveling to the outage site to troubleshoot the situation and determine a fix, there had to be a better way.

Available technologies for expanding communications networks had pros and cons. To install traditional copper 56k circuits to each site would be cost-prohibitive while increasing the risk of physical damage from trees and lightning strikes. Alternative communications methods, such as fiber optics, might reduce the threat of lightning strikes but were prohibitively expensive and excessive for the relatively limited bandwidth needs of each site.

“Our search for the right technology led us to cellular,” said John Coates, Lead Systems Coordinator for ElectriCities. “Today, the networks are expansive, the costs of deploying cellular are minimal, and the reliability is excellent.” Additionally, with the costs of cellular data decreasing, ElectriCities determined that switching to cellular networks would provide the future proofing they needed to move forward.

Digi International already had a multi-year history successfully providing cellular solutions to power utilities in California, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, Florida, New York, and many other states. Internationally, Digi has also created solutions for numerous LATAM and European countries.

Solution

Generator and control cabinets house the Digi WR31 for generator control and the Digi WR21 for metering communications.

Once the ElectriCities team had selected LTE for their new network infrastructure, the focus turned to hardware optimized for connectivity to cellular networks. “The ability to quickly bring hardware online was key, as was the requirement that the hardware was secure, had the flexibility to run on multiple carriers, and could be managed via a centralized management tool,” Coates said.

With the inevitable mix of meters already deployed in the field, and requirements for secure and reliable meter polling data communication, it was imperative to find a centrally managed cellular solution that is dependable enough to maintain a network connection for frequent meter reading, and flexible enough to support communications with Schneider, Itron, JEMStar and SEL devices.

ElectriCities selected the Digi WR31 and the Digi WR21 LTE routers because they provided the right combination of reliability, security, control and flexibility. Industrial cabinets house the Digi WR31 for generator control and the Digi WR21 for metering communications.

The routers were a desirable choice for ElectriCities because of the Digi SureLink® feature which enables Digi LTE routers to monitor the health of the connection through active techniques (e.g., pings) or passive techniques (via stateful firewall), then initiate corrective action such as a cellular module reset or router reboot to ensure maximum uptime. This allows for a consistent connection during the periods when cellular networks go through maintenance and upgrades and check for inactive devices, either of which can result in a device losing its network connection. The router also includes an IP traffic analyzer to inspect virtually any interface or protocol on the router. This can be an invaluable tool when debugging complex configuration scenarios and verifying secure passage of data from one point to another.

Digi high-performance industrial routers provide multi-carrier support so a single router can switch between primary and backup LTE carriers for reliability. Additionally, they are integrated with Digi Remote Manager®, a hosted security, configuration and management solution that makes it easy for smaller teams to manage and secure a widely deployed solution through a single point of entry. A key feature of the platform is that it monitors the configuration of the deployed devices and can automatically remediate them to return the configuration to its approved settings.

Results

ElectriCities saved over $300,000 on telemetry charges the first year after implementing Digi solutions for real-time data gathering on substation meters and generators installed in the field. Savings have continued to grow annually. Additionally, ElectriCities found that Digi LTE routers maintain a far more reliable VPN connection than the dial-up modems they had used in the past.

The use of Digi technology resulted in savings for key areas across the network: yearly lightning strike costs were decreased by $20,000 per site by using wireless routers. Additionally, spending fewer hours troubleshooting and repairing equipment, coupled with reduced maintenance contracts, resulted in an additional savings of $30,000 per year, per site.

Just as importantly, the solution enabled ElectriCities to scale their business with a compact team to serve a much broader region now encompassing multiple states. The ability to monitor and securely manage large deployments from a single point of entry allows the team to provide coverage and meet far greater demand without adding head count.

ElectriCities is able to more reliably and efficiently supply management and communications services across a vast geographic area improving and enhancing power delivery to member municipalities and customers.


For more information on the ElectriCities project, see John Coates' case study article in Power-Grid.com.

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