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What is the Smart Grid?

What is the Smart Grid?

Analyzing traffic flow and usage in real time allows for fine grained control of the electrical distribution system through the Smart Grid.

As computer users, we can’t live without electricity.  It can’t be stored in wholesale quantities, so in the last century local grids were interconnected to better leverage specific favorable locations, such as hydro-electric plants, and hydrocarbon fired plants near supply lines. This provided some resiliency and economic benefits, but distribution was still based on a 19th century model.

A massive 1965 blackout in eight northeastern states and Canada led to NERC’s formation (now North American Electric Reliability Corporation).  Though cooperation improved, as well as connectivity between various regional utilities, the “smart grid” term did not become used widely until 2005.  Definitions vary, but central elements like the use of real time signals, analyzing traffic flow and usage, all in the digital domain, allow for fine grained control of the electrical distribution system.  The use of smart meter collected information for applications beyond monthly billings is what is driving smart grid adoption.  Of all the ARRA monies awarded, some 3.4 billion went to smart grid projects.

AMR, Automated Meter Reading, what most think of as smart meters, eliminates meter readers, but also enables remote control, in AMR plus.  AMI, Advanced Metering Infrastructure, which refers to the ability to forecast, control the grid, and achieve better allocation of power and rate dependent usage aren't such obvious facets of smart grid technology.

Smart Grid Features

Why are so many utility companies on the bandwagon?  Smart grids allow customers to switch usage to less costly rate periods, and saving even a bit of electrical use forestalls costly power plant building. Less use reduces greenhouse gases, and this control adds resiliency to the grid. Your local utility may not implement all features of installed meters, or even all smart grid technologies.  Advanced features that some utilities may implement include:

● demand response, the ability for the utility to curtail power use (if authorized)

● distribution automation, the ability to automatically respond to varying conditions and usage 

● dynamic pricing, giving the customer the ability to move some demand to off peak periods, and for the utility to vary pricing as demand changes.  

Quick feedback on electrical usage, plotted on a graph, led to a reduction of up to 10% in customer electrical usage.   When the feedback was immediate, and customers had control over appliances, some pilot studies averaged cost savings approaching 20%! Just from simple awareness!   Some utilities make the data available on a web page; others send the data over Zigbee wireless to a home display, such as a wireless picture frame which then can plot usage, show current cost, and current rates. 

A Smart Meter Usage ReportA Smart Meter Usage Report

Smart Grid Components/Systems:

From a network perspective there are at least five layers of components, and multiple segments:

●The meters, which may also form a RFLAN wireless mesh network - the cell router and master forms a  relay

● The backhaul (IP network, may be wired or wireless),

● The collectors, also known as the head end,

● The meter data management system,

● The security components:

        -certificate servers

        -decryption servers

        -security appliances (typically security event monitors and intrusion prevention appliances)

 ● Various customer and data systems that make use of the collected information.

Smart Grid Communication NetworkSmart Grid Communication Network

Gas and water meters have no source of electricity, so most use a lithium ion battery with a 15 year projected life.  To save power, gas and water meters typically report every hour, and go to a sleep mode when not in use. 

Douglas Mechaber, from a former life as a molecular biologist to his current occupation as a security architect, Doug has worked in everything from healthcare to utilities.  He currently tries to foster a security culture for a mid-sized municipality.  In his spare time, Doug teaches Scuba, is active in OWASP, ISSA, and ISACA, and is a member of a local USCG Auxiliary flotilla.