The iPhone references in the smart grid world usually revolve around consumer-facing apps that will be unleashed once smart meters and communications networks are in place. But what about on the grid itself?

For Duke Energy, it sees every communication node “as an iPhone for the modern grid” in terms of building a future-proof and dynamic network, according to the recent white paper, “Duke Energy: Developing the Communications Platform to Enable a More Intelligent Electric Grid.”

The paper, authored by David Masters, Manager of Technology Development for Duke Energy, and issued at DistribuTECH, lays out a potential communications network for the mega-utility. There’s a little bit of mesh radio, a dose of powerline communications, and a commitment to leverage public carriers.

“Duke has no desire to be in the communications business,” Masters wrote. “We need to harness already existing expertise and capabilities that the cellular networks provide in designing, building and maintaining the communications.”

The paper is certainly not a PUC filing, and so it is not the final world in Duke’s smart grid deployment plans. But the decision to stick with cellular for the wide area network (WAN) does not come as a surprise to some experts.  “A lot of utilities are asking themselves if they want to be in the telecom business,” said David Leeds, Senior Manager for Smart Grid Research at GTM Research.

Bruce Walker, Vice President of Gridwise Alliance, testified to the Federal Communications Commission in 2009 on behalf of National Grid (where he worked at the time) that the FCC should consider allocating the broadband spectrum necessary to meet the future needs of smart grid. 

“Americans have become largely dependent upon energy and communication technologies and their existence and functionality is an integral part of our society,” he testified in 2009. “Today, we are on the precipice of a journey that will inextricably link these two technologies together and modernize the way we think about and use our resources.”

Until recently, however, utilities have been wary of relying on the public carriers for plenty of good reasons, including bandwidth, security, reliability, coverage and cost. Walker said that each of those issues need to be teased out individually, including making sure that during an emergency, such as the events of 9/11 or the blackout of 2003, the utility’s communications needs are at the top of the priority list.

Thought leaders in the industry, Walker noted, have been tackling these issues for some time. The telecoms have also been eager to play in this space, so prices have come down dramatically in the past two years. If a utility is big enough, like Duke, it has the luxury of being able to step back and really look at how it can utilize all of the resources in its region. “This was the thinking of where the industry needs to go,” said Walker. “If you could partner with a ATT or Verizon to develop the service, now you’ve saved a fortune and more importantly time and effort.” Mark Munday of Elster Solutions also told Greentech Media in December of last year that utilities would soon start making more use of the existing cellular networks.

Masters said this architecture was already being deployed in Ohio, where they are using utilizing the Verizon network, with the Ambient nodes and the Echelon PLC and meters for the majority of the Ohio deployment. The nodes have access to both internet and external ethernet, serial and USB interfaces.

Currently, the architecture uses the public carriers to connect to each distribution transformer and then uses Wi-Fi, powerline communications or 900 MHz to connect to endpoints such as meters, sensors and distribution automation equipment. Masters told Greentech Media that each region will see a unique solution as the technologies progress over time. “Duke Energy benefits from the economic and technical economies of scale that have been unlocked by the public wireless carrier ecosystem,” he wrote in the white paper.

The details of Duke’s vision also highlight that there is no single winner. For certain mission-critical applications, public carriers will likely never be the ideal choice. The muscle of Duke Energy, however, is creating opportunity for other smaller utilities that might not have the bargaining power that Duke has when they come to the table with the largest telecoms.

As the smart grid progresses, the relationships between utilities and telecoms will not only multiply, but deepen. “This solution is more adaptable,” said Walker. “I applaud the telecom and utility partnership, which has the opportunity to push the modernization of the grid.”