The Internet could be the final piece making up the smart grid, but as E&T discovers, security concerns mean the solution may bring with it a host of new problems.
What role will the Web have in the future of the smart grid? Many had hoped that the development of the Web would provide huge benefits, but ominous reports that electricity infrastructure control systems have been compromised by Internet attacks have seeded fears about the integrity of the modern grid.
The most recent attack by a Trojan dubbed Stuxnet has targeted communications and control at energy infrastructure primarily in India and Iran. The Trojan targets Windows-based supervisory and control equipment made by Siemens, equipment that usually runs with minimal human intervention. Reports have suggested that one of the primary targets of the Trojan was Iran's new nuclear reactor at Bushehr.
Iran's official news agency says a complex computer worm has affected the personal computers of staff at the country's first nuclear power plant weeks before the facility is to go online. The IRNA news agency is quoting the head of the Bushehr nuclear plant, Mahmoud Jafari, as saying a team is inspecting several computers to remove the malware, but that it 'has not caused any damage to major systems of the plant'.
With the integration of renewable energy, the growth of distributed generation and the advent of smart meters, the Internet is being used as a communication tool. But are the benefits it delivers worth the risk associated with an architecture that is open to abuse?
'There are countless things that have been accomplished by having this universally accessible flow of information through the Web over the last couple of decades,' Paul Wilson of GE says. 'The prime benefits are the richness of that information and the speed, which for the most part is very good. The bad side, and the part that really concerns the utilities, is that we have also opened up communication to people who may accidentally, or maliciously, want to use the Web for their own purposes. There is a lot of concern about the grid being more inter-connected and therefore more accessible for people who would want to shut the lights off for whatever purposes.'
The Web will certainly be a very useful foundation for the smart grid either as the Web that we know today or just as a model to how the communication and information part of the smart grid will evolve. The overriding question for most people is just how we do that without jeopardising the security of the grid?
The dilemma facing utilities and generators is that without this real-time, two-way flow of information there would be no smart grid. It is the availability and accessibility of this hitherto unavailable information that is seen as the key enabler of the modern, intelligent grid. 'It is tough, and I don't think anyone has any immediate answer to that,' Wilson continues. 'In many ways people have talked about a smart grid now for a while and I've heard it called an 'Internet of energy' or an 'energy Web'.
'I think the Web serves as a model for the smart grid and a lot of people are looking back at the way the Internet evolved and are trying to see if there are lessons to that. If we make the grid smarter can we learn about the way the Internet evolved and the proliferation of Web applications has grown. There is a lot of effort by standards bodies to try to get a little ahead of the game in defining communication.'
The columns of national newspapers have been filled with stories of energy infrastructure being attacked, whether with malicious intent or simply by hackers. 'I think sometimes things do get exaggerated in the media but I don't think it is pure hype at all,' Wilson asserts. 'I think there truly are problems. Even in fairly secure or obscure data networks, there have been documented attempts to hack into the system. I don't know many of the details, and those who work within security are not eager to talk about specific cases, but I do believe there have been a number of cases where people have successfully hacked into the grid and played around with things that they shouldn't have. This raises concerns.'
But when all is said and done it is hard to argue against the use of a Web-based system to control the flow of information around the grid. Despite the very apparent security risks, the Internet will continue to play a vital role. 'The feeling is that you can achieve an awful lot by knowing cost-effectively what is going on,' Peter Jones of ABB agrees. 'Could you imagine how expensive it would have been if, without the Internet, we had to provide a link into every customer's house. It would have been incredibly expensive.'
The most obvious advantage that the Web offers to energy distributors is the ability to communicate. 'The grid has always been very much a stand-alone system, and there has always been a flow of electrons, but not a flow of information associated with the smart grid,' Wilson says. 'It varies from utility to utility, and country to country, but it has been very much a one-way flow of power where the only communications in most places is someone reading the meter periodically and sending a bill to the customer. There has not been much opportunity for the utility to communicate to the customer or vice versa and, of course, the Web gives a very convenient and pretty much universal way of doing that.
'I think there are a couple of distinct areas,' he continues. 'One of which is internal to the utility; how can a given electric utility use the Web to better control the grid. Then a related area that I think will evolve is how any given utility can use the Web to communicate with customers.
'There is also the possibility of a third arena where customers are communicating with each other within community groups or local government where the utility might not even be involved. The communication is very much around the grid, power flows, how to conserve energy, all of the things that are of direct concern to the utility.'
The vulnerability of grid infrastructure has called into question the viability of basing grid communication on the Web, and, according to Wilson, it could lead to more private closed networks, with less flow of information. 'In some ways it reminds me of the situation 15 or 20 years ago when most utilities had a private radio system in terms of voice communication,' he says.
'If a utility wanted to be able to communicate with its field crews to change the order of work during the day or just despatch someone to a trouble point, there was usually some kind of private system in place with the utility owning and operating with a vendor.
'This was not using any type of public wireless network. Now those are, for the most part, gone because of the proliferation of the different providers out there that have built cellular networks. I wonder if there is some part to that in the grid.'
Jones believes firmly that the Web has a greater role to play in homes, rather than in any wider grid control or monitoring capacity. 'Fundamentally, it is in the house and I think that is probably the biggest impact,' he says. 'We are not really breaking new ground with using secure Internet connections for the control of the system because a lot of that is actually done on private networks for security reasons. This could be something like a SCADA network, and we have had private networks controlling SCADA systems for an awfully long time, well before the Internet.
'The big breakthrough is bringing communication capability into the house, and bringing that capability to both electric and gas because there are interesting arguments about optimising the fuel mix.'
One option would be to use the Internet to monitor where and who is off supply. Most utilities today are still unaware of a local power outage until a consumer calls it in, but if they were unable to contact a group of routers it would be a good indication that there was a power supply problem.
'If you have voltage problems at the end of the troubled distribution feeder because you are overloading it, you are going to get an awful lot of good information by simply feeding back the voltage of customer's terminals and you could probably get very good information by looking to see what the voltage drop is for the increase in current that they are taking.
'You can also look to see the condition of the network very crudely by the sourcing pins. So fundamentally you can play an awful lot of useful tricks by taking very simple measurements from a large group of people either back to the network company to manage their network, or to a supplier who is managing or providing a service to National Grid in response to demand response.'
But the Web really comes into its own when you consider the thorny issue of demand-side management; the ability to manage demand in such a way that it does away with the need for expensive and inefficient stand-by generation. Jones argues that if the electric grid cannot dynamically control demand, whether through low wind or grid failure, it cannot have control of the situation. 'We need to be able to respond to a sharp requirement in demand reductions, possibly for frequency response, by having what we call active home,' he says.
The ABB vision is an energy hub in every home which would monitor and control a number of devices within the house with customers allowing third parties to control the non-essential devices. Exactly what comprises a non-essential device is a matter of some conjecture, but most agree it can be air conditioning, heating and, for limited periods, fridges and freezers. 'We see the energy hub being connected via the Web, by the Internet,' Jones says. 'This will mean third parties using the Internet will be able to collectively, possibly even across a disperse group of customers, under a single command initiate a demand response instruction such that stand-by generator sets are not required and frequency is maintained in a system emergency and to facilitate the general need for the network to be more flexible.'
The advent of the electric car adds another string to the bow for the use of the Internet. There is much talk about the viability of using the residual charge in electric vehicles as a back-up electricity storage. However, the only way you are going to know what the residual charge is that you can call upon, with agreement of the customer, is to have an Internet connection or some form of connection. 'Most people now have Internet connections, even in rural areas, and the communications speeds required to do this are fairly low so most people could actively use this,' Jones says.
By definition, electric vehicles are mobile, which adds another layer of complexity. 'It gets complicated because they move around,' Wilson says.
'For all of this to be manageable by the utility you obviously have to be able to communicate with all of those locations and all of those devices. The Web seems like a very obvious candidate for the communication. I don't think a utility can afford to build out a completely redundant and secure system to every customer.
'We are in a situation where both the physical communications infrastructure of the Web and the standards and protocol that have evolved of the past couple of decades are going to be used for a lot of that communication. The question then becomes 'how do we make that robust enough and secure enough to make sure that the grid is not in danger?'.