Despite the dire warnings that the emerging U.S. smart grid might be too smart for anyone's good, the folks working on the buildout of a new American power grid insist that they have network security issues in hand.
George Arnold, the National Institute of Standards and Technology's peripatetic point man on smart grid standards, has been traveling to meetings throughout the country since Congress approved the smart grid plan last year. Arnold has been building a constituency for developing interoperable smart grid specs that will ensure security and achieve the most energy savings in the new national power transmission system.
"The problem I see is not in designing the products, but the operations practices. That's where the gap is," Arnold warned during the panel discussion at ESC.
NIST published its initial smart grid framework late last year. An industry committee formed by the Commerce Department agency is currently developing powerline standards that would serve as the basis for connecting appliances to home networks that could monitor and manage energy usage. Arnold said the group is scheduled to report on its progress at a meeting later this month.
Another key question raised during the panel discussion is what society will get in return for all this effort and money. Still unclear is how, or even if, most American consumers will interact in meaningful ways with an intelligent power grid. Will the network shape consumer behavior, or will consumers simply ignore the smart grid's features?
"The consumer is the big kahuna," said panel member Katherine Hamilton, president of the GridWise Alliance, a coalition advocating smart grid technology. "We need to figure out how to calculate investment over time for benefit over time, which is hard because we don't know how consumers will interact with this grid."
Regardless, most would agree that the existing power grid is extremely vulnerable and wasteful. One need only recall the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which affected an estimated 55 million consumers in eight U.S. states and the province of Ontario.
We can ill afford the economic and social impact of another massive power outage. And we possess the technologies and the engineering and design skills to ensure that such an event does not happen again.
It's time to transform slogans like "design for security" into actual practice. If we do, the smart grid will draw on the best of our engineering skills while hastening the day when the United States is no longer dependent on foreign energy sources.