Smart Grid Solutions Have Common Software Characteristics

My previous blogs touched on different aspects of the Smart Grid.  Now let’s talk about some of the common denominators of all solutions.  One is the fact that software will be a critical component to successful Smart Grid operations.  And not just any software – but open, standards-based, interoperable, and secure software. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is diligently working on Smart Grid standards with a focus on interoperability and security.  There is a two-day workshop going on right now between NIST and vendors of Smart Grid solutions to develop these standards.    

Some may argue that proprietary solutions are inherently more secure than open solutions. Unfortunately, proprietary systems are just that more vulnerable to any threat.  Let’s use an example from biology.  Which organism is the stronger – the one that is out in the environment, exposed to various germs that improve its immune system and ability to combat infections, or the one that lives in a bubble and is prey to the first biotic threat because its immune system has no defense experience?  We all know the answer to that question. 

Software must be open and interoperable, or else as consumers we will all pay the price in higher utility costs, more expensive solutions, and less reliable energy networks.  It must also be secure.  Security has become a hot button issue, as noted at the recent Black Hat conference, where 2 sessions identified vulnerabilities in smart meters and network configurations and 1 session focused on weaknesses in Zigbee, a wireless networking specification favored for Home Area Networks (HANs).    

Security concerns cover everything from physical access to a meter all the way to the sophisticated types of attacks perpetrated on Internet-connected sites and networks .  Let’s face it, anything can be vulnerable, so it’s a matter of reducing the losses suffered at any point of attack.  Our centralized grid worked very well, but it is the wrong overall network architecture for the bi-directional flow of electricity and information that is the essence of the Smart Grid.  A distributed architecture – one that accommodates distributed generation – minimizes the security risks by spreading generation, transmission, and distribution functions – even down to microgrid proportions.

What are some of the other common software characteristics for Smart Grid solutions in addition to being open and secure?  It should be scalable.  If it is meter software, it should work from hundreds of meters up to millions of meters.  If it is a utility billing or enterprise resource planning type of solution, it has to manage large amounts of data, and filter the meaningful data for that utility’s operations. 

Smart Grid software also has to be flexible with regards to latency of data.  Some applications will require real-time data, while others can take data at times of least network traffic to avoid congestion situations.  For example, the sensors that monitor transmission conditions for lines or equipment need real-time communications back to operations centers.  Electricity usage information from my meter may not need real-time communication capabilities, but might need to be sent more frequently than once a month. 

Smart Grid software solutions also need to incorporate Web design principles where appropriate to offer the most intuitive user portals for sharing information and managing distributed generation arrangements with utilities.    Many of these characteristics will be covered at the upcoming Green Software Unconference on August 19th in Mountain View, CA.  I hope to see you there!