Take one part IP-based communications, mix in two parts durability and sprinkle with security, then bake in a remote substation. The result? Cisco's latest offerings in electrical substation automation.

The Connected Grid Router 2010 and Connected Grid Switch 2520 are the first devices in a suite of communications infrastructure products that will be rolled out in coming months by the networking giant.

"Every time [utilities] need something, they run a new wire to it," said Sanket Amberkar, Senior Manager of Smart Grid Marketing at Cisco. "What we're offering is the opportunity to converge multiple services on the same infrastructure."

The switch and router are based on Cisco's IOS software, but they are both more rugged and durable than other Cisco products and they have no moving parts, allowing them to more easily withstand the harsh, dusty environment out in a substation (as opposed to the cushy living inside a data center, for example). It's like the Land Cruiser edition of switches and routers.

Although the current focus is on AMI deployment, the next step for utilities, which many have already started, is automating substations so that they can better use information coming off of smart meters, and also be better able to handle intermittent energy as more renewables come on the grid.

"It's about having intelligence out on the network," said Amberkar. The devices will help utility operators have better situational awareness of the grid at the field area network level and eventually, to be able to automatically repair faults in the system.

The router and switches lay the backbone for more sophisticated levels of substation automation that Cisco says it will be rolling out soon. The company is leveraging itself to be a major player in managing the  "network of networks" that will arise as utilities look to move information out of the operations center and onto the grid. But Cisco is far from alone in moving into the space. General Electric, Siemens, Arcadian and Full Spectrum are just some of the companies also staking claims in networking the grid end-to-end.

Even though there is a lot of talk about bringing intelligence onto the grid, it isn't actually happening as quickly as many would like it to. Participants on a recent panel at The Networked Grid conference all agreed that distribution automation had taken a back seat to meter deployment, despite the fact that there are huge gains in efficiency to be realized through grid automation. The business case is simply not there right now, except in some of the most load-heavy areas, according to Ken Geisler, Smart Grid Chief Architect at Seimens.

Eventually, however, whether it's due to another peak in oil prices or the need for more control because of renewables, everyone expects distribution automation to get its day in the sun. Cisco wants to already be on the grid when that happens. As consumer appetites continue to increase, Amberkar thinks that is what will really drive the need for smart substations and distribution automation. "People buy things that need electricity, like a fridge," he said at The Networked Grid. "People are not keen on what's going on in the electrical grid. They're more concerned with what they can do with it. You need to get a level of consumer interest to drive what you need to make investments into the grid."

After all, secure and networked substations will help with the not-so-small issue of bringing electric vehicles onto the grid later this year. For now, Cisco has its eye on helping utilities to backhaul the information off of the millions of smart meters currently being deployed. However, no one really knows if smart meters or electric vehicles will get consumers interested enough to care about routers, switches and synchrophasors (another blackout a la 2003?). Cisco is not waiting to find out.

"We're trying to come into the market of how to do management in that space to handle the load" of EVs and renewables, said Amberkar. "One of the secret sauces we bring to the table is our ability to manage more nodes than any other network."

Tags: cisco, distribution automation, router, substation automation, switch