Winds of change for private LTE

Izabela Żylińska, Editor-in-Chief at Smart-Grids.pl, interviews Paweł Niedzielski, Sales Director at Nokia Solutions and Networks, about the new opportunities for private LTE.

It seems that several years of temporary collapse in the Polish wind energy industry is behind us – new projects appear and the dormant ones are revived. In a recent article, we wrote about the growing interest in building offshore wind farms: specific facilities with specific communication needs that may be satisfied by private LTE. I’ve invited Paweł Niedzielski, Sales Director at Nokia, to talk about the topic.

Paweł Niedzielski, Sales Director at Nokia Solutions and Networks

Is the revival of the wind farm market good news for Nokia?
First and foremost, it’s good news for the climate. But for Nokia as well, the power industry has been important for us, and it seems that our offer perfectly meets its needs. Private LTE (pLTE) is an excellent example of a communication network we’ve been talking about in Poland for over two years, with good implementation prospects. Nokia has several hundred such installations around the world, with many of them in the energy sector, and some of these are wind farms. Recently, we’ve implemented such a solution for the “North Sea” project, with 14 wind farms in the Belgian and Danish waters, the largest having over 200 turbines.

It would seem that the offshore wind farm sector wouldn’t develop particularly well in Poland, but such projects exist – we wrote about them last fall. Do you have high hopes for the sector?
Interestingly, there are 91 offshore wind farm projects registered in Poland. It’s quite a number, although none of them have entered the implementation phase yet, so I expect the first operational installations to be land-based. On the other hand, offshore farms are statistically larger, so the demand for pLTE connectivity is expected to be higher.

I imagine that building an onshore and offshore wind farm looks completely different. Is this also the case with a pLTE network?
Granted, the work environment is completely different, but the network structure and configuration don’t vary that much. As a radio network, pLTE is built in a similar way regardless of conditions. Base stations are connected to the network by optical fiber, which is possible to install both onshore and offshore. It may seem surprising that we don’t have a problem with it in the middle of the sea, every turbine is equipped with such sets anyway. The energy they generate is transmitted by submarine cables, which always include fiber optic cable. And in terms of radio networks, broadcasting radio waves at sea is easier, we have better range as there are no obstacles. On land, especially in the case of wind farms built in mountainous areas, we have to take landscape into account and radio planning is much more complex. On the other hand, at sea we often have to deal with severe environmental conditions. Temperature fluctuations are higher, the winds are stronger. Salty seawater and high humidity are also detrimental to communication equipment installations. However, having equipment that is resistant to extreme weather conditions allows us to mitigate such problems.

I imagine that the harsh conditions of the high seas constitute the most demanding test for your equipment.
Not necessarily. We’re planning projects in even more difficult conditions.

Ok, I think that’s the most exotic example I’ve ever heard. But let’s go back to Earth and the Polish wind energy. Are radio networks really necessary? You said that every turbine, whether on land or at sea, has an optic fiber line Why can’t we base data transmissions on such networks?
Well, it’s true that each turbine has a fiber optic network and that the equipment mounted at each tower allows the transmission of a great amount of data through the optical fiber lines, at least from fixed points such as control devices and sensors. So, fiberoptic networks are sufficient for the needs of current operation and power generation. However, new IoT-based maintenance and monitoring capabilities will require wireless connectivity. Also, personnel working around the turbine require wireless connectivity, which is why we need pLTE. This need is more significant at sea than on land, especially during the construction of wind farms, as there are a great number of people working on turbine towers, maintenance ships and in helicopters involved in the process. But whether at sea or on land, the goal is the same – efficient communication.

Due to the range of pLTE base stations, these can be mounted on a few towers to provide coverage even for a large wind farm. Apart from employees temporarily working on turbines for inspection, maintenance or repair purposes, this wireless connectivity can be used by vessels and transport fleets for companies operating offshore wind farms, or maintenance team vehicles at onshore installations.

pLTE networks in offshore installations are also used “after hours” for private entertainment purposes (access to the Internet and social media). This may be surprising, as the energy sector is very careful about separating operations and corporate networks, not to mention the public network. However, this is during the construction stage of the farm, not its operation, and secondly, such access is not just for entertainment purposes. Let’s consider that these construction crews spend many weeks at sea, several hundred kilometers from the coast. Many companies treat the issues of loneliness and isolation very seriously as it may have a detrimental effect on their employees, so they try to provide them with conditions as close to normal as possible. Besides, it fits well with the mission of companies building ecological and environmentally friendly energy sources that usually promote sustainable development, including the well-being of their employees.

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Are there any new trends in the offshore wind farm sector? If so, could you give us some examples?
I’d point out two trends that can be described as “further” and “bigger”. Turbines are being built further from the coast and are increasingly larger. The latter applies both to a single turbine – which has a higher tower, a bigger blade span and generator, which consequently leads to greater power generation – and in terms of the size of wind farms, with hundreds and thousands of turbines. However, it’s the first trend that’s particularly important to us. Some countries, such as Belgium, already have legal regulations regarding minimum distance from the land. And when the farm is located several dozen or even hundred kilometers from the coast, there is no chance of using traditional means of communication (for instance, public GSM networks, as was the case in the past when wind farms were built closer to the coast). When building a more distant wind farm, you also need to create its own communications network. It also means that it is more difficult for a maintenance vessel to reach the turbine, so wireless connectivity, automation, and remote monitoring all become even more important.

It’s interesting that we met to talk about LTE communication but are spending most of the time discussing other things, such as construction and operation of wind farms. In addition to being an IT specialist, do you also feel like a wind energy expert?
I would by no means be defined as a wind farm expert, but I’m certainly observing the industry very carefully. That’s what I like about creating telecommunications systems for different companies – I get to learn about them from the inside. Generally, we wouldn’t be able to provide proper communication solutions to our clients without knowing their industries, we also wouldn’t be able to give them the best-tailored offer. That’s why we always try to learn as much as possible and cooperate on an ongoing basis.

Let’s get back to land. I wanted to ask about the general emerging trends in the power generation sector and their impact on wind energy and related telecommunications systems. We know that smart grids are the foundation of renewable energy. Any other trends? IoT? Industry 4.0?
Of course, both. IoT is the basis for the optimal functioning of new industrial facilities, where everything is interconnected and there are various types of sensors everywhere. That includes wind farms. IoT requires efficient connectivity as well as a large bandwidth. Even though the signals from individual sensors or measurement points don’t require much, the sheer quantity of such devices creates very large data streams.

I treat Industry 4.0 as a broad concept related to managing industrial projects, methods of constructing and managing modern industrial plants, automation, digitization, and related processes. Wind energy doesn’t require such flexibility as is expected from modern production lines – the blade has to spin, the turbine generates energy, and you don’t have to consider alternative methods of operation. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use Industry 4.0 methodology to optimize these seemingly simple processes. It can and must be done in terms of management, operation, maintenance, the entire scope of asset management and asset lifecycle optimization, and so on. I see the fact that wind farms are built from scratch as an advantage. In traditional industry, particularly in the energy sector, we’re dealing with devices having decades of service life that were built a long time ago. Implementing Industry 4.0 principles to such a system is much more difficult. Wind farms are created from scratch, so everything can be planned by taking into account current and future trends and needs.

Since we’re at it, what might these future needs be? Any examples?
Drones. They’re not a novelty anymore, but many people still associate them either with military and surveillance applications or with glorified toys for people to make birds-eye films. However, between these two extremes is their professional use for commercial applications. Industrial facility monitoring is one such application. What’s more, it rarely requires a person controlling the device with the transmitter, as most drone tasks are automated. They can be given a route to fly, and if there is a need to monitor a specific place, it’s controlled centrally. Data transmitted by drones is also processed centrally, i.e. video and infrared images, data from sensors, environmental information, etc. You can imagine how much data it involves. Without the pLTE network, it would be impossible to process this.

Drones are commonly used around wind farms. Regular visual monitoring of distant and high structures wouldn’t be possible using traditional means. Coming back to the comparison with traditional energy and power plants, there’s usually a “rounder”, i.e. an employee whose task, as the name suggests, is to make rounds along a certain route and observe devices to ensure they are properly functioning. It can be easily done at a land-based facility. On a wind farm, such task would be done by a drone.

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The second example is the use of AR (Augmented Reality), probably better known from computer games and Sci-Fi movies. But it’s already entering our everyday lives. Let me start with an onshore example. In some of the installations, technicians walk around supervised industrial facilities in special AR goggles. If you turn on the parameter monitoring mode, you can look at a specific device, let’s say a valve, tank or connector, and certain parameters will be displayed next to the item: flow rate, pressure, voltage, etc. When I first saw it, it reminded me of Robocop, a movie I’d seen a long time ago. Now, here we are, creating such solutions ourselves. In an even more advanced version, when opening a switchgear cabinet with devices to be worked on, a technician can use AR goggles and the system (or a dispatcher) will tell them how to move specific levers, knobs, or buttons to achieve the desired effect. Their activities can also be monitored in real time, as everything they see is recorded. It can be analyzed on an ongoing basis or used to make critical decisions. However, all of that wouldn’t be possible without a fast broadband radio connection.

I still have some doubts. Building a mobile network is a serious issue and I bet creating a private LTE network is both complicated and expensive. If I put myself in the shoes of an investor considering it for a wind farm, will such connectivity, with all its inherent advantages and benefits, be achievable for me? Will it fit my budget?
Indeed, creating a radio network is commonly associated with a large-scale project and high costs. But that’s a myth. Let me give you an example: when we organized conferences on LTE connectivity before the pandemic, we presented something we called “network in a backpack”. And it was literally just that: a standalone LTE network that fit in a backpack or a special suitcase. We use it in crisis management systems. In the event of a natural disaster or any other emergency, the team on site can create a temporary pLTE communications network in a few minutes. In fact, you don’t need anything more complex than that for a wind farm – it just doesn’t have to be carried in a backpack. I think a prospective investor would be interested in the possibilities of such a network or its cost optimization potential – not so much for the construction, but primarily for the operation of their wind farm. Again, there are plenty of examples.


Summarizing only the applications we talked about: critical voice and video communication, with industry required Push-to-Talk and Push-to-Video modes; data transmission from sensors (also mobile); video data transmission from helmet cameras of employees performing tasks in the field; real-time data and video analysis; and delivery of information and reports to employees in the field, controlling drones and transmitting information collected by them. These important examples highlight the variety of applications and how demanding they are. All this would not be possible without a high-speed broadband network.

But when I hear “high-speed broadband network”, “5G pops up in my mind. Maybe it’s not worth investing in LTE and simply wait for 5G?
I’d say it’s worth investing in LTE and waiting for 5G at the same time; one does not exclude the other. On the contrary, these two options complement each other quite well. Most of the pLTE devices we supply today are 5G-ready. In the future, you’d just have to update the software or radio modules in some cases, and your network will be upgraded to 5G. It’s the natural direction of development. Today, pLTE networks provide the best available range of functions at reasonable prices on well-tested, proven equipment. That’s why I don’t hear a lot about such concerns in the power generation and power grid industry, as it appreciates reliable, and safe solutions, such as pLTE networks.

This article was originally published in smart-grids.pl