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How 5G will save consumers millions and the power sector literally billions a year

How 5G will save consumers millions and the power sector literally billions a year

5G has long been touted as a means to introduce new levels of remote maintenance and to support safety. New research shows how.

In our last two blogs, A significant set of numbers: real 5G savings and real 5G economic benefits identified in two traditional industries and How 5G will deliver annual economic benefits in the billions to European rail users—and also make them all safer, we started to share some hard numbers that have emerged about the potential of 5G as a way to save hard, hard numbers in two key industry verticals—rail and energy.

As you may have seen in the previous blogs we’ve run on this topic, these are numbers that have come out of two recent EU-funded projects funded by a scheme called H2020 5Growth, which was a now-concluded €14m fund exploring the use of 5G in selected vertical industries.

Overall, 5Growth had 19 partners and saw pilots in Spain, Italy, and Portugal, but the pilots we are particularly interested in are what happened in a small city in the latter county at a power, engineering, and mobility firm called EFACEC Power Solutions. Here, we covered what happened in the level crossing pilot, which results from a switch from copper cabling to 5G. Now let’s look at what lead researcher Daniel Corujo and his colleagues found about the possible 5G difference in the power arena.

Here, there were two use cases: what contribution 5G might make in terms of monitoring and maintenance support for a class of secondary substations on the grid called Medium/Low Voltage (MV/LV) Distribution Substations, and a special application of signal and data exchange across a smart meter network (specifically, use the last gasp of energy before an outage to save and transmit important information to identify and prevent greater problems). 5G’s support for the kind of synchronisation that would be needed here was of interest, as delays of a few milliseconds would really make a difference.

In tech terms, the first test case was to see if 5G-delivered Augmented Reality might improve the work of maintenance teams needing to work at such substations, and in the second, the 5G strength the team wanted to put under the spotlight was low latency communications as a way to squirt over so-called last-gasp messages when the device is almost 100% drained of power. In the maintenance case, 5G/AR was being compared to the current solution, which is done by radio frequency technologies (LoRa and 4G) and a specialist energy sector cable-based standard called Power Line Carrier (PLC). 

Here, the vision behind the proof of concept was if an HD video signal streamed in near real-time to the control centre and to the mobile devices of engineers, the crew and the operator managing the intervention might be able to do their job both quicker and more comprehensively, while AR could be also used to assess any potentially affected critical assets on-site.

Improving productivity here could really help, as the main Portuguese power company told the research team it sees an average of 7500 incidents per year in the low voltage electrical grid that need local intervention of maintenance teams. These can take at least 100 minutes to fix, with at least 50% of that time being spent by the guys in the high-viz gear on-site: note there are at least three million of these substations in Europe.

Again, we encourage the interested reader to read the full study here, and we’re simplifying a lot of energy-industry specific features of the work here. But like in the level crossing pilot, the team were not looking for tiny benefits. The researchers wanted to see if Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) really could support the test video camera and augmented reality streaming in the field (which it should, as it is held as ideal for data-driven use cases requiring high data rates across a wide coverage area), as well as if massive Machine-type Communications (mMTC) can in practice connect a large number of smart metres and URLLC for the transmission of critical signals. The pilot’s designers also wanted to reduce the length of substation downtime by a pretty hefty 15%, and cut a key sector metric, Energy Not Supplied (ENS) (which basically means how much energy isn’t delivered due to such outages) by at least 5%.

And so—what did they find? That the 15% figure is absolutely achievable. The researchers claim that the local DSO—the sector term for ‘distribution network or system operator,’ i.e. the operator of the electric power distribution system which delivers electricity to most end users—told it that, “The adoption of 5G mobile communications in the secondary substations and along the low voltage electrical grid allows the DSO to increase the level of automation in the low voltage distribution electrical grid, and that way to react fast in the occurrence of outages keeping the service downtime at lower levels… the adoption of 5G communications along the low voltage electrical grid supporting the described use cases can lead [power cuts due to low voltage network interruptions] to decrease by 15%.”

If that’s so, then that would mean the implementation of a large-scale 5G infrastructure supporting the automation of the low voltage electric grid would allow lower overall power cuts by an impressive 114 minutes per consumer a year across the EU. Great, but what about that 5% ENS target? Again, the pilot cashed that promise out—but more dramatically, across the EU automating the low voltage power grid might lead to a decrease of 9GWh worth of ENS in the EU in a year, which at might amount to EU232 million annual savings for EU consumers.

Consumers wouldn’t be the only beneficiaries; DSOs and power companies would see bottom line improvements by a move to 5G, says the study. On the maintenance front, just using 5G’s help to cut a substation visit down by 50% with something like AR and video might add up to EU8 million savings per year. And overall—in figures as dramatic as we saw with the rail 5G pilot and forecasting—the EU energy sector could expect overall economic benefits of EU2.4 billion (EU2,446,000) a year.

As we’ve noted before, there are assumptions here that could be questioned. 

But given the dramatic impact just a small subset of 5G has made in these four use cases in these two mainstream industries, we have to agree with the authors of An Economic Assessment of the Contributions of 5G into the Railways and Energy Sectors:

“The introduction of 5G in these verticals allows faster, safer wireless connectivity, with a high bitrate and access to a large number of devices in a highly reliable way. These new or upgraded features, added to the flexibility of the wireless deployment, which reduce deployment and maintenance costs of the infrastructure, are the main pillars of the revolution that 5G will bring to the transport and energy verticals… The results [also show] on a European scale millions of euros saved by the different stakeholders involved in the deployment of 5G solutions.”

There is a big question out of all this: who deploys? We expect that it won’t be MNOs installing all this new 5G, but the verticals concerned, as both railway and utility companies have long deployed their own networks.

But these findings do underline once again how the 5G ecosystem is shaping up to be so much more diverse than previous waves of comms innovation. And while we do need research from other verticals, especially ones without these high level of brew-your-own network mindsets, we do expect they will also answer the question, So 5G is just for your smartphone? the same way as rail and power has:

Nope, and it never was.

It really is for mainstream businesses—and will really, really help us.