With the increased attention around smart grids, we asked Jeffrey Katz, the chief technology officer of IBM’s Energy & Utilities industry to share some of his thoughts on the opportunities for building a smarter energy infrastructure. He is currently representing IBM at the DistribuTech Conference in San Diego, and sent us the following:
Building a smart grid is a complex undertaking. It requires new technologies that affect an infrastructure system with massive, wide-reaching influence. The benefits, however, are clear and worth the investment.
With a smart grid, improvements to the underlying power utilities infrastructure are much easier, less costly and more efficient. Smart grids provide tremendous amounts of data that can be analyzed in real time to help predict maintenance problems and equipment failures, and can be used to better forecast capital equipment expenditures. For consumers, smart grids will open an array of new services that better match their unique needs and habits. Consumers will have more control and be able to “communicate” with the grid, making decisions based on their personal usage patterns, such as planning for better use of renewable energy when available.
With such an important undertaking, however, it becomes important for people to understand what is meant by “smart grids” in the first place. Based on work we’ve done with electric power utilities across the world, we’ve noticed a number of common characteristics one would associate with a smart grid.
First, a smart grid requires the deep integration of Information Technology and Operational Technology – two parts of a utility company that have traditional not shared much common ground. Much of the “smartness” of the new grid results from the symbiotic nature of these two areas, with IT precepts being adopted into the realm of the relays and reclosers, and the non-stop reliability requirements of the transformers and trucks being adopted into the automation and IT processes.
Next, security is essential in the smart grid. Just as bank robberies have largely moved from physical banks to cyberspace, smart grid vulnerabilities are likely to be digital in nature. Security must be built into the grid at the outset to prevent to any kind of malicious attacks or disruptions. Based on experience across many industries, we’ve developed a number of methodologies at IBM to mitigate these risks.
Another important characteristic of smart grids are the ability of far-flung electric power systems to communicate across the network. Just as the brain can sense and respond to damaged nerves throughout the body, so too can a smart grid’s central nervous system react to situations throughout the power network. A smart grid’s communication links are vital to sensing grid activity and emanating control signals for grid optimization work, including demand response.
With such complexity, a smart grid needs to be implemented in phases. It is physically impossible to add the integrated sensing, communication, and analytics required all at once. Even beyond the pilot stage, rolling upgrades will occur with service territories, and utilities will have different criteria for evaluating what parts get smart, and in which order. When the telephone system got smarter consumers didn't have to replace their phone; the transformation happened invisibly in the central offices. Similarly, upgrading the electrical grid needs to proceed without disruptions to consumers. The electric grid is more pervasive, bulkier, more obvious, and more distributed than the telecommunications network, and as such, will take longer to automate.
Making that jump to a twenty-first century electrical system signifies major changes for the electric power industry, but companies need not go it alone. Benchmarks, models and training are available to help companies make the transition. For example, we worked with the American Productivity and Quality Center to produce the Smart Grid Maturity Model, assessing where a company is and where it may want to go in the smart grid circuit. Also, resources from the Grid Wise Alliance Architectural Council and the EPRI IntelliGrid initiative can help power companies transition to a smarter grid.
An intelligent utility network is a major part of the future electric power industry. I would be interested in hearing your views as well. Please feel free to share in the comments below.
Jeffrey S. Katz is the Chief Technology Officer in the Energy and Utilities industry at IBM. Previously he was with ALSTOM Power Plant Labs and before that at ABB Corporate Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org