April 2009

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Wireless and the Smart Grid

Before spending billions, industrial wireless systems must be secure

Fast Forward

  • Current grid is at least 50 years old.
  • Smart Grid technologies have already seen action within the U.S. and abroad.
  • Advancing the nation's grid could be cost effective only if utilizing wireless devices.
By Peter Fuhr and Wayne Manges

The U.S. electricity generation and distribution infrastructure represents the largest interconnected machine on the planet, resulting in it being called the most complex ecosystem ever created by humans.


Regardless of the hyperbole, the interconnected system consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with a combined generating capacity of more than 1 million megawatts connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. A substantial portion of "the Grid" was up and running more than 50 years ago with the control and delivery architecture that reflected the best ideas of that time. 

The "Smart Grid" (SG) has been floating around for quite a few years with the definition varying from simple replacements and expansion of the distribution system to integrating digital communications systems into the network, thereby allowing remote monitoring of system distribution and operation all the way to remote control of the principal energy consuming appliances in individuals' houses (demand side management). 

Other SG components involve optimizing into the grid electricity generated by alternative/renewable sources; redundant fault-tolerant distributed SG control systems; integration of advanced sensor technologies; grid energy storage for load balancing; carbon nanotube wires for the long distance transmission of (perhaps) 100 million amps of current over 1,000+ miles with negligible loss (versus the ~2,000 amps of current over 100s of miles with 6-8% loss found with current conduction wires); and with SG mentioned in numerous Stimulus Package briefings other technologies have jumped onto the SG bandwagon.  One U.S. Department of Energy study calculated internal modernization of U.S. grids with smart grid capabilities would save between $46 and $117 billion over the next 20 years just due to reduced transmission losses. 

The whole SG concept is not an overnight sensation. The SG reality is the technologies and advanced processes under discussion have been, in a number of instances, already demonstrated within the U.S. and abroad.  Of specific note is the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) efforts, research conducted at U.S. government labs (such as Oak Ridge National Labs), the Bonneville Power Authority, local municipalities (for example, Austin, Tex., and Boulder, Colo.),  as well as, what would now be called SG, efforts and demonstration projects that have been underway in Canada and in Italy since 2000.  In all of these cases, the logistical and financial benefits of SG technologies have been demonstrated thereby providing the footing for the large scale SG projects considered for rollout right now.

There are numerous angles to the SG "story," but with experts from numerous fields sounding the warning bells of grid collapse and various brownouts/blackouts, it is time to truly tackle the aging of the 50-year-old U.S. national electricity generation and distribution system.

U.S. high voltage transmission network.

Grid girds for wireless

Reports even as far back as the late 1990s indicated advancing the nation's electricity generation and distribution system can become cost effective only if there is a capability to use wireless devices throughout the system architecture. This point arises from the studies that Pacific Northwest National Labs (DOE-PNNL) and others performed, which examined the costs of wired versus wireless deployment of identical sensing systems. Typical cost benefits stated in such reports are a 4-5x reduction in costs by deploying wireless. While there are a broad range of wireless technologies available for SG "settings," there is one common point: There are numerous applications within the SG world where wireless systems can be very beneficial; and no single wireless technology can adequately address each application.

Consider the case of wireless in AMI. As previously stated, the role that advanced metering infrastructure plays in the overall SG goals is integral to allowing consumers the ability to use electricity more efficiently while providing utilities with the ability to detect problems on their systems as well as operate them more efficiently. An example of a consumer-friendly efficiency concept such as "Prices to Devices" becomes realistic-and cost effective in deployment-when wireless devices monitor a home's major energy-consuming devices (e.g., washer/dryers, refrigerators, thermostats). In this scenario, the devices monitor the power consumed with, in certain configurations, the data web-accessible for the homeowner to examine. The general belief is, especially when the power usage data for their neighbors is displayed, a peer-based behavior modification will occur in the household resulting in less power consumed. The situation expands when the notion of demand-response couples into consumer powering of devices.  

The role of wireless gizmos in this AMI scenario have been stated (and restated) in too many Washington hallways and marketing briefs.  The story follows the line the consumer will easily install the appropriate power monitoring sensors with their wireless connectivity of the information to a gateway (or similar) device that is conveniently located in the house. Notwithstanding the numerous trials underway with this technology, AMI smart instruments does not make it a Smart Grid; it is a possible contributor, but not the entire story.

Standards provide security

While the point is to highlight that wireless systems have a key play within the Smart Grid, it is important to see what may be unfolding in the market, which keeps the spotlight on AMI.   AMI proponents have repeatedly stated the developed system must utilize "open standards."

Distribution systems will benefit from remote monitoring aspects of the Smart Grid.

It seems pretty basic, but any organization that does not use and utilized the true form of an open standard forms an impediment to the development and deployment of robust, secure wireless systems for the SG and its constituent components such as AMI by not allowing the best and the brightest individuals to collectively work to design the optimal system architecture (from type of radio to data protocol to security settings).  Not having the entire system deployment vetted by security experts in a public group/activity may lead utilities and regulators into a false sense of system security potentially providing unsecured paths into the SG ecosystem.  

Secure the system

If one goes strictly by the press releases and technical articles showing up in the multitude of SG magazines, then you would think wireless is already integrated into the SG "solution."  All you would have to do is rush over and buy some ZigBee devices to monitor the power consumption on various appliances in your home (or at least the temperature), then attach the ZigBee gateway device to a cellular network modem, and voila your data shows up at the local power company and all has just become Wireless Smart Grid.  Alternatively, one can buy proprietary wireless devices, attach them to the home's power consuming appliances, and then plug the gateway device into the existing home DSL/cable network. There are numerous "solutions" available in the marketplace.  The security of such a connection of systems is provided by the core security of each of the components, yet security evaluation of such a system is not conducted.  Restated, a core tenet of the Smart Grid effort is to develop and deploy a secure system.

The next step would be to set up a formal security examination of the network (reference) architecture including the technical underpinnings of all component systems before the nation spends billions of dollars on the SG rollout.


Peter Fuhr, Ph.D. is chief technology officer at Mountain View, Calif.-based Apprion. His e-mail is peter.fuhr@apprion.com. Wayne Manges is ISA100 Wireless Committee Chair and program manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratories Extreme Measurements Communication Center. His e-mail is mangesww@ornl.gov.