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Smart grid grapples with challenges

Posted: 04 May 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart grid  communications  network 

A panel of experts at the Embedded Systems Conference listed the hurdles that the smart electric grid is facing such as security to consumer behaviour.

"Going forward, a myriad of issues need to be worked," said George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid standards at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

"One area we do need more work is in dealing with electromagnetic events" such as so-called suitcase nuclear bombs or solar storms, Arnold said. "The military has systems to deal with EM pulses but they are just not practical, so we do need better physical and electrical designs to deal with these effects," he added.

Arnold and others expressed confidence engineers are adequately focused on making the future digital, networked electric grid secure.

"We have some of the best minds in the world working on how to protect the grid," said Arnold. "The problem I see is not in designing the products, but the operations practices—that's where the gap is," he said.

Design for security has become the new mantra for engineers working on the smart grid, said Chris Knudsen who oversees smart grid standards and architecture efforts for PG&E. "I am very confident we are following best practices and that is the best we can do," said Knudsen.

"We have a lab that includes a complete substation and one that is outside the corporate firewall," Knudsen said. "We will take [efforts tested there] into pilots, so by the time you scale to broad services we will have a high level of confidence."

The smart grid will also drive the creation of a new set of communications systems hardened not only for security but for harsh conditions and longevity. "If I am going to deploy a router on an electric pole where there is a high cost to touch it, it has to be reliable," said Michael Fuller, business development manager for a new smart grid group at Cisco Systems.

In terms of standards, NIST published an initial smart grid framework late last year but "it's more of an artist's rendition and an engineering drawing—its fairly high level," said Arnold.

For example, "there is a lot of work in industry to have a richer interface" between renewable DC energy sources such as photovoltaic cells and inverters who turn it into AC power for the grid, said Knudsen.

Meanwhile a committee hammering out powerline standards to connect consumer appliances to an energy-aware home network is making progress. It is expected to detail it latest work at a meeting in May, said Arnold.

"The consumer is the big kahuna," said Katherine Hamilton, president of the GridWise Alliance, a broad coalition advocating for smart grids. "We need to do a lot better job finding out how consumers behave," she said, noting the launch of an ad hoc group that will research the market.

"We also need to figure out how to calculate investment over time for benefit over time which is hard because we don't know how consumers will interact with this grid," Hamilton said.

Utilities have to show financial benefits outweigh costs of deployment to get approval for the expense of new systems, said Knudsen of PG&E. "We won't understand many of the problems until we get these devices out—we have a tremendous amount to learn," he concluded.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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