A 5G Boost for Cleaner Energy in China

China Mobile and Huawei team for 5G smart grid proof of concept

Power grids, networks of electrical transmission lines connecting power stations, are becoming more digital and networked in their processes, as needs for energy consumption grow more diverse, demanding a higher level of intelligence from the power grids. To support this digital transformation, utilities need better communications: more flexible, secure, economical, intelligent and reliable networks.

Thanks to the ultrahigh bandwidth, ultralow latency and massive connectivity it can deliver, 5G is ideal for building such networks. A recent smart grid project in Shenzhen, China is a good example.

China Southern Power Grid (CSPG), in partnership with mobile operator China Mobile and network infrastructure and solutions provider Huawei, have built the world’s first full-service smart grid demonstration area that applies 5G-based networking in all phases of electric power services, from power transmission, transformation and distribution, to consumption.

In the project, Huawei mixed standalone 5G capabilities with other cutting-edge technologies, such as end-to-end network slicing and mobile edge computing, to create a private network for CSPG on China Mobile’s 5G network — in effect, using 5G and virtual private network technology to reshape CSPG into a smart grid.

In terms of functionality, the project focussed on the role of 5G in smart grids, ranging from traditional energy services to remote control, teleprotection, advanced metering, distributed automation, demand response and distribution management. CSPG identified more than 50 potential uses for 5G, covering transmission, transformation, distribution and consumption. Examples of these are highlighted below:

  • Transmission: CSPG has more than 300,000 km of transmission infrastructure consisting of an 800 V direct current network and over 250,000 km of optical cables covering substations, offices and customer service centres — these cables make up about 60% to 70% of its overall assets. As part of the project, it implemented infrared detection based on 5G and artificial intelligence to facilitate cable management processes, like remotely inspecting cables deployed in inaccessible areas using 5G connectivity.
  • Transformation: CSPG operates over 7,500 substations that must all run reliably to ensure the stability of the power grid, despite most of these being unmanned. Trials involving the use of patrol robots and drones to ensure equipment rooms are operational have shown 2.7 times more efficiency.
  • Distribution: because of the very wide area that it covers, implementing distribution over its optical fibre network has always been challenging for CSPG, but 5G has reduced outage time by enabling clock synching mechanisms with millisecond-level low latency.
  • Consumption: controlling consumption was previously done over a wired connection, but the project has enabled control services to be connected wirelessly — a breakthrough in power consumption, as the network covers tens of thousands of homes.

But it’s in the implementation of 5G network slicing that the project is most innovative. By harnessing the capabilities of Huawei’s networking solutions, CSPG was able to split its power network into two physical network slices: the power production and control area, and the management and information area. Four security zones were each then further divided into four logical network slices, with an end-to-end slice management plane and two dedicated multi-access edge computing nodes also created.

This allowed China Mobile to dynamically allocate network resources and provide network-as-a-service, opening a variety of network capabilities to CSPG: network function customization, automation, end-to-end network support, as well as management of specific services based on rights and domains. For example, for various electric power scenarios, China Mobile can isolate the 5G access, transport and core networks, enabling data transfer in the user plane within network slices, ensuring data security.

For end-to-end network slicing, the smart grid project drew on the characteristics of 5G: low latency for power control; high-bandwidth, massive connection for information collection; and a common network slice for public services. When the latter was overloaded, the other two types of slice remained normal in terms of network performance and latency.

The project included key performance indicators for network slicing covering numerous categories (with defined parameters) including area of service, delay tolerance, downlink throughput per network slice, and downlink throughput per user experience. Having this visibility into the performance of the grid has enabled CSPG to streamline its entire operations and management process, from slice subscription, configuration and deployment, to monitoring.

Network slicing is one of the fundamental capabilities that distinguishes 5G from 4G, laying a foundation for digital transformation. The multiple breakthroughs of this project in verification of 5G network slicing functions, and the operations of the 5G network slicing management system are tangible milestones, offering proof for other utilities and industry sectors to define and implement network slicing.

Smart communications infrastructure is the key to the success of smart energy. Smart grids powered by 5G networks integrated with technologies such as mobile edge computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will become essential to the energy industry as it strives to deliver safer, more efficient, more reliable and greener energy, as well as address carbon neutrality initiatives, cope with climate change and achieve sustainable development.