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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Steven Collier

Steven Collier is an IEEE Smart Grid expert whose broad experience includes being a consultant and executive with energy, telecommunications and information technology companies. He is also the vice president of marketing and business development at Milsoft Utility Solutions.

In this first interview, Steven Collier discusses the synergies between the Smart Grid and the Internet and argues for broader industry acceptance of the Internet as the "control plane" for the Smart Grid.

Question: You are a leading proponent of an Internet-enabled Smart Grid. What does the Internet offer that is so special?

No other network can in the long run, provide the speed, reliability, and interoperability of the Internet. Nor will any other network be as ubiquitous, self-healing, and of sufficient capacity to handle the enormous amount of data that will be moving across the Smart Grid. It's the only telecom network that can support a smart, self-healing power grid that will involve monitoring and managing billions of intelligent electronic devices distributed throughout the grid from generation through transmission and distribution systems into consumers' homes and businesses. Bob Metcalfe — the founder of 3Com and the father of the Ethernet — predicts that the Internet will become the control plane of the Smart Grid saying, "Over the past 63 years, we met world needs for cheap and clean information by building the Internet. Over the next 63 years, we will meet world needs for cheap and clean energy by building the Enernet."

Question: What specifically is the synergy between the Internet and the Smart Grid?

We're seeing the increased penetration and proliferation of intelligent electronic devices on the power grid including SCADA systems, smart meters, automated distribution management devices, even real-time synchro-phasor monitoring units. In other words, the electric power industry is beginning to deploy a lot of intelligence gathering, analysis and even control throughout the power grid. Using this information effectively for a smart grid requires real-time, two-way, digital communications. Before the advent of the Smart Grid, we only had to deal with few million monitoring and control points on the entire nationwide transmission and distribution system. Now we are talking about 250 million smart meters and many times that number of monitoring and control points both inside the customers’ premises and on utilities’ transmission and distribution systems. We will need a robust, reliable, interoperable, broadband, nationwide digital telecommunications network that can handle literally tens of billions points of monitoring and control in real time. In my mind, that means the Internet, both wired and wireless, which is already nearly ubiquitous has proven to be able to handle millions of times more data than anyone originally expected. A truly Smart Grid will not be achieved via a patchwork of independent, utility-owned telecommunications networks with proprietary data and communications protocols that will severely limit, even prohibit interoperability between and among each utility's hardware and software systems, and, even worse, across the grid at large.

Question: What is your vision for the Internet-enabled Smart Grid?

My vision is that the Smart Grid will be part of what is increasingly being referred to as the Internet of Things. The Internet as we know it today almost always starts or ends with people. The most typical transaction involves a supplier of data (i.e., information, voice, music, video) or commerce at one end and a consumer on the other. But we are now beginning to see machine-to-machine communications and transactions swamp that. We are seeing IP addressable points proliferate into objects such as EVs and PHEVs, distributed generation and storage devices, smart meters, even consumer appliances. So it is not hard to imagine IP-addressable monitoring and control devices anywhere and everywhere on the Smart Grid. Cisco Systems VP Marie Hatter says, "Our expectation is that this network will be 100 or 1,000 times larger than the Internet."

Question: What does the Internet-enabled Smart Grid require beyond the installation of IP-addressable monitoring devices?

In addition to the intelligent devices and the telecommunications network that we have been talking about, utilities require enterprise applications to turn the data into actionable information to be able to manage a Smart Grid in real time. These applications will reside at utilities, at consumers' homes and businesses, and at other businesses that will be participating in the Smart Grid. Today's enterprise applications include customer information and billing systems, advanced metering systems, SCADA and ADM systems, automated outage management systems, geographic information systems and more. They are based primarily on collecting, organizing and managing a limited amount of data after the fact for planning and operations. The next generation of enterprise applications will enable utilities to engage in active grid management. That is, they will be operating the grid optimally based on real-time data and control.

Question: The electric utility industry has been slow to adopt the Internet as a key Smart Grid enabler. What are the reasons for this?

It is true that an Internet-enabled Smart Grid is not yet a point of view that is widely shared by electric utilities. The electric utility industry is a cost-plus, franchised monopoly business that has been around for more than 130 years while the Internet, as we know it today is a highly competitive, rapidly changing phenomenon that has been around for only 20 years. Utilities are accustomed to owning and controlling all parts of their infrastructure in large part because they have the obligation to serve customers reliably. And, investor-owned utilities, which represent nearly three fourths of the total business, earn a rate of return for their shareholders only on the assets that they own. It's in utilities' DNA to own and control everything from the generator to the customers’ meters, including the communications systems. There is another problem, though. Most utilities subscribe to a number of myths regarding the Internet and the Smart Grid. For example, the Internet will not be reliable enough and it won’t be available when the utility needs it the most. Or it cannot be secure enough and it will be possible to hack into the Smart Grid from smart meters or the Cloud. Or it will not be ubiquitous enough to be available at every point that the utility will need monitoring and control. Or it is too expensive and utilities can build their own networks more economically. These belie the reality of the Internet even now, and increasingly so as time goes by, particularly in comparison to the patchwork of telecom networks that individual utilities might build and operate. A hopeful sign, however, is that the Internet-enabled Smart Grid concept is being recognized by vendors of smart meters, SCADA and the other intelligent electronic devices and enterprise applications that we have talked about. Most have IP-addressable devices and Cloud-based enterprise applications in their technology plans.

As VP of marketing and business development at Milsoft Utility Solutions, Steven Collier writes and speaks widely on new and emerging energy, telecom and information technologies.

NOTE: Part II of this interview will be published May 14, 2012.