The Smart Grid: A New Breed of Communications Network

By Shidan Gouran (ICP) August 12, 2009
We all understand that the Smart Grid is about communications between devices and control systems on the grid.
But what isn’t clear is if the technology and standards for this system need, or can, in fact, handle the sophistication typical of modern human-centric telecom networks. If we all agree that the scenarios I’m about to paint represent the desired vision of a future powered by Smart Grids, the answer becomes clear.
In the future I’m considering, nearly all electric powered devices in the home and industry are “connected” and with adequate smarts to respond to Grid events. It’s a world where Plug-In Electric Vehicles, or “PEVs,” are the norm. It’s also a future where power generation from highly distributed and mostly rural alternative energy sources fuel much of the nation’s energy consumption. Another consideration to keep in mind, although this Smart Grid is the pinnacle of automation, is that it’s still, ultimately, managed and controlled by people. So let’s consider some simple scenarios of these ideas in action and see what kinds of network interactions make sense. 
Let’s start with PEVs. Big shock, cars move around quite a bit and are mobile devices. Now, as mobile devices which are powered by the Smart Grid and that charge at many public and private electric outlets, it makes sense to charge the owner of the car and not the owner of the building or location.
Grid authorization, authentication and accounting mechanisms, together with a security infrastructure, would be needed to ensure a device’s proper identity, the networks integrity and proper accountability. The accounting process would also have to include sophisticated and decentralized clearing-house services so consumers could charge their PEVs with roaming utilities. Of course all these requirements would extend to every mobile/portable electric device including laptops and other consumer electronics. Turning power consumption into an individualized experience should, in my opinion, be an important goal of the Smart Grid. 

There are many factors which dictate the need for geospatial location services for virtually all elements of the Smart Grid.
Let’s just consider one factor, albeit one of the most important.
In our scenario, power generation has become increasingly distributed and dispersed by orders of magnitude. The main reason is that location plays a big role in alternative energy, you can’t just put up windmill, solar cell farms and micro hydro plants anywhere you like. In this future, alternative energy accounts for more than ten thousand megawatts of the nation’s energy usage.
Right now, grid operators don’t generally have to worry about tracking critical components – their locations and other geographical information are well known and usually only needed by local personnel, but in a distributed environment of this magnitude, having a system where all devices and components can be located and identified in real-time regardless of distance, all while filtering information using a policy driven control framework is of critical importance.
The connected devices we’ve considered are regularly and often telling the grid what state they are in. Kind of like Twitter, but, instead of just people, billions of devices are “energy tweeting” away and updating their status thousands of times a day.
Fortunately, everything they are saying involves well-defined semantics, so handling what needs to be done with each update, who receives the update and what information they exactly receive, even though extremely complex, is possible. It sounds very much like the various presence frameworks used by the communications industry. 
In the beginning of this article I mentioned that the Smart Grid is about communications between devices and control systems, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that we are building SkyNet here. People will continue to remain the most important “control points” for the predictable future. What this means is that the most important function of the Smart Grid will be to present better information to people, in a more efficient manner so they can make smarter decisions.
It should also be about allowing the Grid or “electricity business” workforce to be a mobile workforce (especially considering how distributed the Grid will be when alternative energy comes in to play) that can take advantage of all that modern telecoms have to offer in communicating with each other better. Considering this, a network where both human-centric and machine-centric media converges and a network that is smart enough to work in both contexts and under all possible heterogeneous conditions and constraints is in this writer’s opinion the most important thing.
I’ve described a very sophisticated network of interactions which includes concepts of Mobility, AAA, Identity, Location, Presence, Convergence, Complex Rules and Semantics, and Individualized Service.
These scenarios don’t even scratch the surface for reasonable Smart Grid use cases, but, I hope I’ve shed some light on the fact that rather than a simple industrial control network, the Smart Grid will look very similar to the most sophisticated IP-based networks of the communications industry. 

Learn more about Smart Grids at the Smart Grid Summit — collocated with ITEXPO, the biggest and most comprehensive IP communications event of the year. ITEXPO West will take place in Los Angeles, Sept. 1 to 3, 2009, featuring three valuable days of exhibits, conferences, and networking opportunities you can’t afford to miss. Don’t wait. Register now.

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Shidan Gouran is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan

Co-founder, Intelligent Communications Partners

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