Electronic Design
An Expert Offers A Map For Navigating The Smart Grid

An Expert Offers A Map For Navigating The Smart Grid

The 20th century power grid is now being updated with 21st century technologies. The Smart Grid promises more efficient power management, energy savings, and new opportunities for electronics manufacturers working in a wide range of sectors. For a peek inside the Smart Grid, I recently spoke with Marie Hattar, Cisco Systems vice president of Smart Grid solutions, and a recent keynoter at the International Engineering Consortium’s Grid ComForum conference.

JOHN EDWARDS: What is the Smart Grid, and why is it important?

MARIE HATTAR: The Smart Grid is the integration of an intelligent and secure communications infrastructure into the electrical grid. It enables two-way communication and control that could provide real-time management of power generation, delivery, and consumption.

Now you may wonder why this is important. It’s important because it will improve the reliability of the grid through proactive monitoring for things like faults and load conditions, which could lead to disruption of service and even potentially blackouts.

It’s also going to enable energy that’s produced from renewable sources to be brought into the grid more often and more quickly by knowing in real time what capacity is actually available that’s there, where it is, and where it’s needed. Also, it enables utilities and customers to reduce energy costs by optimizing consumption and giving them the ability to manage demand more dynamically.

A lot of statistics indicate than just managing demand alone could be the equivalent of freeing up to 30% of reserve capacity.

JE: What are the Smart Grid’s main components, and where will they be deployed?

MH: The Smart Grid is going to require solutions that will be in key areas of the grid and on the customer premises. There are many components to this. The first one, substation automation, is really designed for the transmission and distribution needs of the grid. These solutions will improve the reliability and optimize integration of distributed energy sources by having two-way communications between transmission systems, for example, and energy management systems for grid monitoring control. This is going to require ruggedized routers and switches that are specially designed for substation conditions.

Another key or main component is smart meter communication. Typically, smart meters are designed for the field area network of the grid, and the communication connects the smart meter infrastructure to the core network for the transfer of things like control and usage information and to increase the transparency of the billing service so you have it in real time. This will require wireless mesh communications and a gateway so you can get that information from the meter and the home.

Another key area will involve grid security. There will be a need for comprehensive solutions that help ensure physical security, cyber security, and reliability across the electric grid. The need to address regulatory requirements and provide critical infrastructure security to grid operation systems, data, and assets will be key. Components for this include physical security access to the premises, video surveillance, network security monitoring, as well as, of course, data protection.

Another key area that people need to think about is data centers. With the Smart Grid, you’re going to be collecting a lot more information and you’ll need a lot more analytics, so there will be a focus on how you build out your data centers to handle this.

Yet another component is business energy management, with solutions that can fit inside businesses or industrial-type customers that optimize that end-user consumption and cost by integrating lighting, HVAC, and building facility control so they can better monitor and report on their energy usage. Examples of this from Cisco include things like Cisco’s network building mediator as well as Energy Wise.

And another key component, last but not least, is what happens in the home in terms of home energy management. These are some of the solutions that we would deploy to help us better manage our own energy usage in the home. This could be a home energy controller that also talks with what we use in terms of heating, thermostat, lighting, etc.

So those are the main components that you’ll typically see most. When people talk about the Smart Grid, they’ll talk about one of these varieties of components.

JE: Who will supply Smart Grid components?

MH: There will be many suppliers in this market who will bring different parts of the solution. At Cisco, we provide many of these technologies and services that are required for the solutions that we just discussed. But we also know that no one vendor can do this end to end alone. That’s why we’ve created an ecosystem of partners that includes a variety of system integrators, power systems, technology vendors, and suppliers so we can develop best-in-class solutions for customers.

In the end, we at Cisco are bringing our expertise to this equation. We think it will all run end-to-end over an IP (Internet Protocol) infrastructure, which is what we have a lot of knowledge about. And we’re currently engaged with a number of leading utilities around the world such as Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy. Again, a lot of different suppliers, but a lot of collaboration across them as well.

JE: Will the Smart Grid make any special demands on network components?

MH: Yes. They will be required to operate reliably in some very extreme environments. Some of these extreme environments involve operating in areas like pole tops and utility substations, or even attached to homes and businesses. To stand up to these environments, many network components need to be ruggedized. In other words, they have to comply with specifications such as IEEE 1613 or IEC 61850.

These standards provide really stringent environmental as well as EMI (electromagnetic interference) immunity requirements so the components can tolerate a broad range of things like temperature changes, surges, lightning strikes, radio-frequency interference, and even electrostatic discharges. We have the regulatory standards to support this like the IEEE and IEC standards. The key aspect of this is to create components that comply with these standards.

JE: How can Smart Grid components be designed for obsolescence avoidance?

MH: This is an area where you actually design toward an IP-based network as a key capability for enabling a Smart Grid. It’s something that we’ve had to face in terms of developing for the Internet, for example. And IP has evolved and adapted amazingly well since its inception as a communication foundation.

If you look at it from an obsolescence standpoint, when you’re building a communications network, to say that there will be no upgrades is probably unrealistic. But you want to make sure that you are building and designing around a protocol that’s going to be there for a while and has been baked in, which we believe IP to be the one that does so.

Today, if you think about it, IP is a glue that holds multiple types of physical equipment that operate seamlessly end to end over a variety of media. It’s been proven in the last 20 years, and I believe it will be a key protocol that can help support this shift toward a Smart Grid communications protocol.

JE: Security is a major concern in all sorts of networks these days. How will security be handled on the Smart Grid?

MH: The Smart Grid is going to require both physical and network security to ensure that it remains safe from intentional as well as an accidental compromise. If you’re looking at a Smart Grid that’s based on IP, you can provide a lot of physical and network security so you have this integrity.

To be honest, IP is as secure as you want to make it. Although as a protocol it has been designed to be open and flexible, over the years, more and more tools have been built in to provide security in the communications that travel over an IP network. In fact, if you think of all the communications protocols out there, IP has the most tools for securing and managing that transport of data.

As you think about the communications systems in the Smart Grid, and as they evolve to utilize IP as a communication pipeline, IP will stay up to date in terms of all of the state-of-the-art tools to ensure that information travels as privately as needed and is sent to the right destination, ensuring that it doesn’t get intercepted or accessed by the wrong users.

One of the concerns people have is if it is going to be public, or if everybody will have access to it. The reality is that IP is a protocol. It’s able to provide security on both public and private networks. In fact, if you think about many of the industries that use it today, a lot of the retail, banking,  and financial networks are public, and they’re very secure. Think about your personal banking information.

But at the same time, many other areas of the financial network are completely private, meaning people can’t get to them and don’t have access to them. Depending on the design of how the utilities decide to plan out their IP deployment, they can choose how much they expose to a public network versus how much they keep private.

In this case, many industries with very exacting security standards have really embraced IP. At first, they had some initial reservations. But whether it’s government, military, service providers, both for voice and cable services, telecommunications providers, or mainframe computer facilities, all of them were at first concerned about using IP for their operations because of security risks. Now, all of those guys use IP as their communication foundation. It has really adapted to meet the stringent requirements of their networks, especially in security.

JE: How is the Smart Grid likely to evolve over the next few years?

MH: Today, most Smart Grid activities started from smart meter deployments, primarily due to mandates or cost recovery incentives such asvbeing included in a utilities commission rate case, for example, which means that utilities who are otherwise capped can charge customers to recover their investment costs.

From this, we expect to see more activity, especially in the substation and distribution automation areas, as the utilities focus on reducing the costs of energy delivery and also improving the reliability or more efficiently integrating some of the renewable energy sources. Once that happens, there will be a push for energy management at real estate properties, starting with businesses and then moving to homes.

Finally, we’ll see the integration of transportation into the grid and the real estate properties in the form of new charging facilities, management of energy to and from vehicles, for example, and entities providing new services to those electric vehicle owners.

JE: Where can one learn more about developing Smart Grid components?

MH: There are a lot of energy research institutes and policy influencers, which is one source of information on developing the needs for Smart Grid deployment. There’s also many analysts and industry news sources that are closely following Smart Grid trends and developments. Those include folks like Pike Research, Greentech Media, IDC, and Smart Grid News. And finally, some of the leading utility companies such as PG&E and Duke Energy and partners like Cisco who are designing new concepts are good sources of learning where the industry is heading.

JE: Is there anything else we should know about the Smart Grid?

MH: Smart grids are going to drive the evolution of the energy sector and its stakeholders. There are going to be new business entities with new business models that are going to show up in areas of distribution and also the retail of energy. There will be new partnerships that are going to be formed that offer better services to customers as well as the utilities themselves.

This can enable both residential and distributed generation to not just be an environmental proposition but a business one as well, with revenues from energy sold back to the grid. Some of this may appear futuristic. But if you just look at the Internet and the revolution it created in a short 20 years to becoming a staple of our daily life, you can see a similar analogy happening with our electrical grid and how we can better embrace the management of this so we can be more efficient with our generation.

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