New CableLabs platform aims to bring vision to the power grid

CableLabs is exploring a plan to bring the cable industry's access network monitoring capabilities and expertise to the nation's power grids.

The general idea is to employ an overlay network that delivers critical new insight to utilities operating power grids that typically lack a real-time or even near real-time view into overall performance, as well as outages and potential outages.

Gridmetrics is an incubator project within CableLabs focused on monitoring the health of the distribution portion of the power grid.
Gridmetrics is an incubator project within CableLabs focused on monitoring the health of the distribution portion of the power grid.

Gridmetrics, described as an early stage project being incubated at CableLabs, is a budding data platform that can measure, monitor and track the availability and stability of the distribution portion of the power grid. Leaning on cable's existing network monitoring capabilities, Gridmetrics aims to do this by combining data from power sensors in the outside cable plant with data analytics and private, high-speed secure communications networks.

At a deeper level, Gridmetrics endeavors to connect and overlay the communications network and sensors with the vast power grid and send data regularly to an aggregation point that provides near real-time insight into the availability and quality of power. That, CableLabs believes, will bring an unprecedented level of network visibility to electrical utilities.

"Today, the electrical grid is essentially blind. Particularly, in the distribution portion (think the last mile to your home)," Scott Caruso, director of strategic ventures at CableLabs, explained last fall in a brief blog post that shed a few details on the project. "For all the talk of sensors and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), there's a distinct lack of visibility into the status of power availability and quality in the last miles of the electrical distribution grid."

He goes on to explain that nearly 90% of all outages occur in the distribution grid, noting that utilities typically identify outages from sources such as phone calls, texts and tweets from customers, rather than from data being culled from the power grid itself.

CableLabs declined to provide an update on the project, noting that it will have more to say in the months to come. However, industry sources familiar with the idea say CableLabs has already received approvals to push ahead with beta trials. It's not clear yet if Gridmetrics will go it alone through CableLabs or if it will be folded into Kyrio, the organization's for-profit subsidiary.

Multiple applications
Caruso points out that the data set from this effort could have several applications. For example, he notes that R&D work is already underway with the National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL). That collaboration centers on a project called the Situational Awareness of Grid Anomalies (SAGA) that's sponsored by the US Department of Energy's Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response (CESER).

Tied to that effort, the US Department of Energy has awarded about $3 million to to NREL for projects related to grid cybersecurity, including Gridmetrics pilot opportunities covering sectors such as power utilities, public safety, insurance and smart cities.

To amplify why it makes sense to work with the cable industry, the NREL explains that cable broadband lines span roughly 95% of homes in the US, running alongside power lines and carrying data that supports power system operations.

"NREL has initiated a project that unites these two vast networks, focusing on communications and power quality, to achieve high-speed resilience monitoring for the electric grid," the NREL adds.

SAGA is billed as a tool that can visualize grid events – particularly those that occur across utility footprints – and train computers to classify them in near real-time using data from Gridmetrics, as well as weather data, electric grid models and utility metering.

As for Gridmetrics's specific role, it aggregates data from cable broadband networks that include five-minute, low-latency measurements of voltage from neighborhood-level sensors. That, NREL stressed, is "an extreme improvement in resolution over existing county-level resilience tools."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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