Making the Grid Smarter through Internet

Making the Grid Smarter through Internet
Today, the power utilities are becoming increasingly concerned about cyber threat to power grids. Srikanth Chandrasekaran, Senior Regional Program Manager, IEEE Standards Association outlines the need of advancement in internet technologies in mitigating security lapse
Today, a growing number of professionals are beginning to realise that a number of myths (it’s not reliable enough, secure and it won’t be available when it’s most needed etc.) regarding the use of the internet for smart grid, are without basis. The billions of devices already connected to the internet are interoperable. This standardisation creates a competitive marketplace for products and services that is likely to drive performance up and prices down. Internet in reality is also self-healing, just like mesh network routing, where each node serves as backup for other nodes, which makes it potentially more reliable than the power grid itself. Skeptics have also been contending it will be too expensive and one can build their own networks more economically. But, the reality is that the internet is nearly ubiquitous and will continue to be so – especially now that wireless access is common. What skeptics have been ignoring is the enormous cost and delay in trying to build and operate separate proprietary communications networks that would come remotely close to matching the performance the Internet provides today. True – an internet-enabled smart grid will need some customisation – primarily in the areas of serving the last mile and maintaining cyber security. But those are also inherent challenges of the internet that all consumers and businesses are already aware of. It is also true that the same security threats would confront any smart grid control network and that the internet/cloud computing option has more minds bent on solutions than a proprietary one single-industry network could possibly assemble.
Deploying new technologies involves a level of risk and uncertainty that is daunting for the power industry that has not changed its core technologies very much in a century. This risk runs even more relevant for India which has among the most diverse systems – from the really archaic to the cutting-edge in its grid. The risk of an inadequate electric grid is much more daunting than the risk of enabling it using internet – which has been field-tested and experience-hardened for over 25 years.  Other challenges include regulatory requirements, discomfort with new operating schemes and business models, and unwillingness to accept that the conventional approaches to planning, building and operating the grid will not be adequate for the future.
The security and privacy element is one that will be addressed through advancement in internet technologies. Authentication and integrity protection of the control communication and data exchange will happen due to these advancements. On the privacy side, there are privacy solutions under development which address issue areas like smart Buildings and Electric Mobility among others.  IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) successfully hosted a workshop on “Standardization: Living in the smart cities of the Future eWork, eMobility and Connecting to Smart Grids” which provided practical information on home networking, next generation mobility, smart cities, and their integration with smart grids. Of course it goes without saying that success of these solutions are critical as grids are public infrastructure and they cannot fail or hacked into any time.
On another note, much of the existing electricity supply and delivery infrastructure is either becoming antique or irrelevant in the new futuristic scenario. Obviously, one does not have the option of rebuilding the grid from scratch. Utilities could view this as a fortunate coincidence and an opportunity to reconstitute grid monitoring, communications and control with the best new technologies. One of which is internet-enabling to make the grid smarter. Specific to the Indian context, there are interesting experiments or ventures in broadband, optic fibre connectivity across the country besides increasing access to internet through handheld devices and mobile phones which make the option more interesting and feasible.  IEEE-SA, a standard setting body with a wide range of standards for smart grid has developed standards like IEEE P1686TM, which defines the functions and features to be provided in substation intelligent electronic devices (lEDs) to accommodate critical infrastructure protection programs. Security regarding the access, operation, configuration, firmware revision, and data retrieval from an IED is addressed in this standard. IEEE PC37.240TM, which presents sound engineering practices that can be applied to achieve high levels of cyber security of automation, protection and control systems independent of voltage level or criticality of cyber assets. The association is already active in India evangelizing on smart grid and acting as the facilitator in enabling the right ecosystem that makes an efficient smart grid a reality here.
Now is the right time for a “NET” leap to a more robust and much smarter grid.

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