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Smart Grids - The Promise and the Potential Problems

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

What Is a Smart Grid?

Smart grids and the internet of things have the potential to save energy and present a tailored, efficient interaction with the world. Yet the additional collection, analysis and supervision of human activity pose a new avenue to track and interfere with human affairs. The good that smart grids and linked networks could provide should be balanced against the massive invasion of privacy and interference they enable.

Smart grids are necessary to handle the variable and unpredictable load created by wind turbines like the one on this truck.

Smart grids are necessary to handle the variable and unpredictable load created by wind turbines like the one on this truck.

The Promise of the Smart Grid

Creating smart grids requires devices and electronics linked to each other, feeding data back to home control centers, utilities and municipalities. A smart grid that is adjustable by central controllers, though the ability to control appliances and devices in the home will vary based on local laws and regulations.

Instead of rolling blackouts, non-critical but energy intensive items like big screen TVs could be turned off. Unoccupied homes could be disconnected while hospitals and homes with medically fragile residents remain at full power. Utilities could request manufacturers with the highest demand to turn off individual production lines, lowering power usage by a specified amount.

Detailed information on power usage could lead to better conservation. Current power consumption is monitored and tracked for the building as a whole. Now households can find out which appliances are their biggest energy drains and target those items for upgrade or adjustment. Energy conservation then shifts to the Pareto rule, with efforts focused on those changes with the greatest impact. Small events that trigger network wide problems could be identified much faster and possibly mitigated locally before overloading a whole grid.

Interoperability between different types of hardware, software, devices and communication methods between components of the smart grid is also a concern, but this issue has already begun being addressed by IEEE standard 2030. Published in 2011, it is officially named "IEEE Guide for Smart Grid Interoperability of Energy Technology and Information Technology Operation with the Electric Power System (EPS), End-Use Applications, and Loads".

Smart Grid Advantages - Summary

  • Real time monitoring
  • Granularity / detailed information
  • Prevent brown outs from becoming black outs
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Smart grids would link programmable thermostats like this in private homes to centralized control centers to regulate power usage.

Smart grids would link programmable thermostats like this in private homes to centralized control centers to regulate power usage.

The Potential Problems with the Smart Grid

Every monitoring device requires power. Even low power consuming monitoring devices increase the power demand over the load presented by the device it monitors. Implementing a smart power grid and internet of things will drive up power usage before wide scale energy efficiency improvements occur.

Many wireless devices use the same frequency ranges to communicate with each other, central controllers and the internet. Wireless security cameras can already interfere with wireless controllers for gaming consoles. A network of appliances talking to each other to minimize energy usage can interfere with the communication needs of the home's occupant.

Each intelligent device is yet another place for malicious software to hide. And imagine the potential for trouble-making! If you don't like someone, you don't have to steal their financial information and take out a credit card in their name. Simply infect the smart grid in their home and turn off appliances when it would be the most annoying.

Social engineers gain yet another level of intrusion into our daily lives. You cook in the oven a lot instead of using a microwave. You like your house cooler than the politically correct level. Now the utility or the government knows this and can bug you about it. Would you want emails detailing recommendations of how you could save energy? It sounds nice. But the next step may be enforcement, whether it is someone turning off your lights because they sense candles in use, disabling alarms because you are home or turning off power to the whole house because you've exceeded your energy allotment for the month.

An internet of things generates massive amounts of information to be transmitted, stored and analyzed. Simply storing these terabytes of information and analyzing them uses power. It is estimated that a Google search generates between 0.2 and 7 grams of carbon dioxide. Collecting and analyzing this new tidal wave of information may wipe out any energy savings that result from modest improvements in energy efficiency by reducing human power consumption through data from the smart grid.

An internet of things could create a new form of harassment. There are already recommendations for smart meters to buzz or beep when energy usage is deemed too high. In initial trials in the UK, users reported stress when doing dishes, laundry and cooking all at the same time resulted in warning notices. Shall we see the government or local agencies harass people who run the dishwasher and washing machine when they get home from work instead of staying up to non-peak times to run their appliances?

Smart appliances and smart grids can track the location of individuals based on their activities. Imagine the value of this information to potential thieves, snoops and nannies. Someone got up at one in the morning to watch TV after the child's bedroom light came on. Shall parents be notified that their child is out of bed? Or will landlords and municipalities use the information of activity patterns to look for suspicious behavior or additional occupants, gaining information that would otherwise only be available through a search warrant? The commercial in which street lamps light up as people pass gives muggers and voyeurs alike information on where potential targets are located.

Smart Grid Problems - Summary

  • Intelligence infrastructure costs money
  • Smart parts use power, too
  • Potential loss of privacy
  • Security
  • Bandwidth use
  • Return on investment

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