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Who Will Build the Smart Grid?

Rock Hill incorporated wireless broadband as part of a strategy to build a multi-use communications foundation.

Story reprinted with permission of MuniWireless.

There should be some interesting conversation at the Smart Grid 2010 Summer V-Summit this month, following announcements of $200 million in funds to improve the way we create, connect and use power; plus the federal government's entry into critical infrastructure security dubbed the  "Perfect Citizen Program." It is clear that smart-grid momentum has started and will continue to move forward. Finding ways to securely and efficiently improve global power production and distribution is an ongoing process.

We do need a little creative imagination while recognizing the realities of current smart-grid infrastructure and security. For example, power company engineers have sometimes said that a smart meter design under regulatory cost guidelines needs to last at least 15 to 20 years while software engineers warn that home area network application software will change every six months. R&D engineers have said that it will be 10 to 15 years before we have the technologies and infrastructure to deploy smart grids and yet a few small cities have already deployed smart power and utility systems and are already using the same infrastructure for other city services.  I have never seen such a swing in views. However, there is a common point of agreement: Smart-grid efficiencies will be achieved with or without stimulus funding. 

To understand why there is such a disparity in thinking when it comes to the smart grid, I would suggest looking at the diagram on the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability site.  When participating in professional smart grid discussions I found, in the same group conversation, one person talking about technology and another talking about policy and regulation. Power companies look at things one way, consumers and environmental groups another, with policymakers sometimes bringing everything to a halt.  There are specific solutions that support the progress of smart grid, and to employ them, it may be time for a fresh look.

The smart grid and the solutions to its successes are not simple. So it's essential to find someone who has already done what you are looking for and also to find a consulting and real-world integration group that has practical experience in the subject.

You Can't Just Switch on the Smart Grid

I have done a lot of upgrading from legacy communication networks to digital IP networks and it's a lot easier to  build a brand new IP network than to interface dissimilar legacy technologies into one homogeneous network.

In a recent Smart Grid Alliance webinar Doug Preece, utilities industry specialist from Capgemini, summed up just how big and complex the opportunity is. He referenced the site as a way to track the billions of grant awards already released by the Smart Grid Investment Grant (SGIG) program.  In fact there is so much work to be done Preece stated that there would be "a tremendous draw on resources across the industry, vendors and service providers," and that "there in no lack of opportunity."

Dave Malkin the policy manager for GE Energy has been following a variety of issues as they relate to the smart grid.  One of the top policy issues he is tracking is cyber security policy. "Cyber security has been a hot button in Congress for months now" said Malkin. He addressed his concern on how current cyber policy passed by Congress could affect the smart grid. He agrees that we need to, "effectively address real-world smart-grid cyber security threats but not in a way that

might stifle smart-grid innovation investment."  

As smart grid policy and technology discussions continue, the small city of Rock Hill, S.C., already decided to start a municipal wireless network a few years back. With the network technology designed by Tropos Networks, the city of Rock Hill is an example of a municipally owned and operated utility that initially deployed the network for smart meters -- power and water. Today, the citywide wireless broadband mesh network is helping other city departments improve efficiencies, customer satisfaction, public safety and billing accuracy, while significantly reducing operational costs.

"The city of Rock Hill incorporated wireless broadband as part of the city's strategy to build a multi-use communications foundation.  This is a great example of a community that started out with a much smaller plan focused on modernizing and improving utility services and expanded their vision to one which has produced long-term benefits for the community, " said Denise Barton, marketing director, Tropos Networks. Building the Smart Grid is a major undertaking but the answer may be "just do it."  In previous articles I disclosed security concerns from industry professionals in today's power grids with solutions in place developed in military and DoD applications that have direct and immediate application to the current smart-grid security problems. What we did in security is a good model of what we need to do now when transforming our global power grids.

With billions in stimulus grant released and GE Energy offering $200 million in venture capital to small businesses, there is a clear message.  We are dong this and we are doing this now.  We need to use what we have today in immediate deployable technologies while finding migration paths from the old power grid infrastructure to the new smart grid.  Big government, big business and small business will be working together addressing critical global energy needs while creating jobs.  Count me in.

Larry Karisny is the director of Project, an advisor, consultant, speaker and writer supporting advanced cybersecurity technologies in both the public and private sectors.