NIST explores timing alternatives for smart grids

December 5, 2017  - By
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The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has published a 33-page special publication reporting on the results of a workshop convened to recommend research and development priorities for alternatives to GPS time distribution in electrical power systems.

“If timing is to become mission critical, redundant means of distributing timing information is essential,” according to NIST.

NIST hosted the “Time Distribution Alternatives for the Smart Grid Workshop” at its Gaithersburg, Maryland, campus on March 21. The information gained will inform future NIST, U.S. Department of Energy, national laboratories and private sector technical programs and strategic planning.

The workshop consisted of experts on both electrical power and wide-area time distribution. The experts came from industry, utilities, academia and government.

The findings cover desired future characteristics, targets, challenges and barriers to adoption of time distribution alternatives; and priority R&D areas for time distribution alternatives.

Potential alternatives to wide area distributed time synchronization include Enhanced WWVB (radio signal broadcasting), eLoran (hyperbolic radio navigation) and the IEEE Wide Area Precision Time Protocol (PTP – master slave clock synchronization).

Results of the workshop illustrate the need for alternatives to existing GPS timing systems as well as backup systems and many of the challenges that need to be addressed to develop and implement alternatives. Some of the overarching themes that emerged include the following:

  • While a number of potential alternative exist, they will require further infrastructure, research and concerted investment to implement and demonstrate their potential to replace, supplement, back up, or fill gaps in existing GPS systems.
  • Potential alternatives may need to be combined in ensembles to fill gaps, create the needed redundancies, and supplement GPS-based timing.
  • Future alternatives to GPS will need to have the same or better levels of accuracy, resilience, security, trustworthiness, and availability to supplant existing systems; a diversity of timing distribution systems may be needed (terrestrial, communication-based, wireless, etc.).
  • Dependency on space-based systems is currently strong due to their perceived reliability; there is limited awareness of the possible adverse impacts of timing failure events in such systems (and few backups exist).
  • Developing and using existing alternatives and new technologies, and integrating these with legacy systems will require standards and use cases to enable new technology, architectures, and interoperability among systems.
  • Better understanding of attack and failure threat modes is needed to estimate and demonstrate the true consequences of timing failures in systems based entirely on GPS.

About the Author:


Tracy Cozzens has served as managing editor of GPS World magazine since 2006, and also is editor of GPS World’s sister website, Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.

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