Smart Grid

A few weeks ago, intelligence agencies and IT security consultants became intimately familiar with something called Stuxnet. Stuxnet is a computer virus that monitors and can reprogram industrial systems such as SCADA, a common system used to manage the electrical grid. Like most computer viruses, the origins and purpose are a bit unclear, though many have speculated that the virus targeted Iran and the country’s suspected nuclear program.

What does any of this have to do with cleantech? A lot, in fact. First, it illustrates the fears many have had about the susceptibility of our power grid to cyber attacks. The Department of Energy has been increasingly aware of these dangers, recently awarding $30M to improve cyber security.

Second, and less obviously, it is another selling point for microgrids. Microgrids are localized mini-grids that have their own generation sources (often solar), can be paired with storage, and are connected to the larger (or “macro”) grid. Picture, for example, a mall with rooftop solar panels providing power to the retail shops when it’s needed, selling excess power back onto the grid when it’s not needed, and buying power from the grid if necessary to supplement the mall’s energy usage.

While touting the advantages of the microgrid is worthy of a blog post unto itself, let me briefly point out a few benefits here. Microgrids can dramatically reduce operating costs by cutting energy purchases from the grid to negligible levels. And – if the microgrid is equipped with “smart” interconnection equipment like inverters that can sell energy onto the grid when the price is high and use batteries to store it when the price is low – it can even generate income. Of course, it requires up-front capital to finance purchases of solar panels and the like, but payback periods can be as short as one year.

Other benefits include a reduced carbon footprint (assuming the generation source is renewable), diversification of energy sources, and improved power quality. But, in light of a world vulnerable to cyber attacks that wreck havoc on the grid, perhaps the most important benefit is improved security and reliability that comes from a microgrid’s ability to operate autonomously from the larger “macro” grid. If the larger grid is shut down by a cyber attack, a microgrid can continue operating undisrupted. And a cyber-terrorist’s ability to paralyze an entire economy via an attack on the grid is at least slightly reduced when that attack fails to reach those operating on their own autonomous grids.

Indeed, prominent thinkers in other fields have emphasized the security benefits of moving away from a centralized distribution system to an increasingly de-centralized and autonomous one. One excellent example of this push is Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s famous book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb believes that unforeseen and highly improbable events are more difficult to predict than we commonly believe. So instead of just trying to predict and prevent them, we need to consider how to minimize the negative impact of such events when they occur. One way to minimize their impact is to build redundancies into a system. A microgrid that can operate autonomously from the larger grid is one way of building a more redundant and robust system. This is why the United States Department of Defense is a major proponent of microgrids, developing microgrids for military bases and improving its security of energy supplies and sources.

Source: Peak Energy.


We all tend to think of the Dutch as pretty relaxed and forward-thinking people. But last year Dutch voters roundly rejected a proposed compulsory rollout of smart meters, on grounds that the equipment could reveal too much personal detail to utility company employees and expose citizens to wrong-doing.

Those kinds of concerns may seem exaggerated but in fact they’re serious and will have to be squarely addressed, speaker after speaker emphasized at a smart grid technical conference, sponsored by the IEEE Communications society and held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in Gaithersburg, Md. A conference track featured presentations on “false data injection,” malicious data attacks, statistical methods of attack detection (and concealment), and “data anonymization.”

In the United States, because of 9/11, when we think of smart grid vulnerabilities, we probably think first of terrorist cyber attacks. But there are other things to worry about too. False data injection, for example, is a tactic not only Al Qaeda could employ but also crooked traders, seeking to create fake market conditions that affect price. Instead of creating congestion in order to make money relieving it, as Enron traders boasted they did, a malicious data injector could just create the appearance of congestion and reap millions.

One clear message from the very cosmopolitan and sophisticated SmartGridComm conference: Every country has its own experiences and obsessions, and all that has to be taken into account if the smart grid is to live up to its billing.

According to press reports, Dutch voters worried that meters relaying information as often as every 15 minutes could tip utility workers off to when houses were empty or expensive new appliances had been bought. Seem paranoid? Well, it just so happens that this summer my family traded houses with a Dutch family living in an affluent suburb of Haarlem, near Amsterdam. Every door to the outside–four in all–and every ground-floor window had three locks that had to be opened with different keys. Evidently the Dutch living in Haarlem–however relaxed and forward looking they may be–don’t like to have their belongings stolen. (They seem to worry about that more, in fact, than the yuppies moving these days into New York’s Harlem.)

In Germany, because of sensitivities associated with Nazism, the Federal government has repeatedly found it impossible to conduct national censuses. Citizens worry that if the government gets too much personal information, once again some day Gestapo agents may be pounding on the door in the middle of the night. Seem paranoid to you? It doesn’t actually matter what you think. What matters is what Germans think–and Siemens, a major player in smart grid technology and a prominent contributor of experts in Gaithersburg, is no doubt acutely aware of that.

In England, the Department of Energy and Climate Change intends to see all households equipped with smart meters by 2020, at a cost of about $13 billion. The anticipated average saving to each household will come to $45/year.

So let’s be clear: That’s significant–and very big in aggregate–but not huge on a per-person basis. If citizens are to be persuaded the smart grid is a good thing and are to be talked into helping make it work to best advantage, they will have to be convinced of its public benefits and assured its downside can be managed. As a source told the Times of London: “The backlash against smart meters could be aggressive if the message that they will reduce energy consumption and help lower carbon emissions is not made clear. The government also has to address these privacy and security issues. Many people do not like the idea of utility companies having a permanent window on their private lives.”

Source: IEEE Spectrum.

There is no shortage of smart metering communications standards, though there is a distinct lack of actual smart meter interoperability. European smart meter standards development was a major topic at the Metering/Europe event last week in Vienna, and it seems industry efforts to conform to the European Union’s M/441 mandate for open standards are unlikely to bring much order to the current chaos. Europe’s largest smart meter projects, including those in the UK, France (ERDF), and Spain (Iberdrola), are each effectively defining their own “open” standards. The OPENmeter project, formed and funded to respond to the M/441 mandate, appears to have capitulated by accepting all of these standards (plus some others, including the newly renamed “Meters & More” technology already deployed by Enel in Italy) into their framework. Each project is large enough to induce customized multi-vendor support, but this approach will not create the economies of scale that a small but robust set of standards might offer. Never has the old lament been more apropos: “the great thing about standards is there are so many to choose from”.

So it is notable that a small group of leading European meter makers is making progress toward actually choosing from the standards menu to deliver true multi-vendor interoperability. About a year ago, Iskraemeco, Itron, and Landis+Gyr banded together to form the Interoperable Device Interface Specifications (IDIS) Industry Association, leveraging their existing collaboration with ERDF (an EDF subsidiary) in France. The IDIS Association goal is not to specify yet another set of standards, but rather to “close the gaps” within existing standards implementations for certifiably interoperable smart meters. “IDIS Release 1, package 1”, to be fully published by year end, specifies a specific Power Line Communications (PLC) implementation, list of metering objects, and interface to a PLC data concentrator. A second “package” will define an IPv4 profile and additional interfaces. IDIS compliance requires conformance testing by an independent test lab, and membership requires actual delivery of compliant products.

Interestingly, the first release is focused on rather mature PLC standards, not the latest and greatest technologies being pushed smart meter vendors. Future releases that will add newer OFDM-based PLC protocols and IPv6 are planned for 2012. And no utilities have publicly announced support for, much less a requirement for, IDIS-compliant devices – not even ERDF who effectively inspired the collaboration. However, judging by the expressions of interest at last week’s event, I expect this effort will be a boon for small-to-medium sized utilities without the clout to attract multiple vendors to their own “standard”. By specifying IDIS-compliant systems, they can get multi-vendor competition and flexibility without having to do months-to-years of vendor cajoling and testing, reducing their overall risks.

What do IDIS vendors get from this? They hope to accelerate and grow the overall market, short- circuiting the “pilot-itis” at each utility that delays production deployment (and hence time-to-revenue) and endlessly consumes precious support resources. They see time as the most important result of “economies of scale”.

Sadly, this is the only true open, multi-vendor interoperability effort we can point to worldwide. The US-based NIST efforts have a considerable way to go to even have a decent communications standards menu to choose off of, and Asian countries are each specifying their own standards with an eye toward giving indigenous suppliers an advantage under the guise of supporting “special local requirements”.

Ultimately, the utilities that make the buying decisions are responsible for what vendors deliver. We’ll see whether European utilities will reward the IDIS vendors for their pioneering efforts.

Source: Pike Research.