Being ‘Lean and Mean’ not enough for a ‘Smart’ Grid

|July 25, 2016 0
Image courtesy of africa at freedigitalphotos
These grids have to be safe and secure too, argue some studies and their authors. But is that possible with tiered-pricing, Radio-frequency exposure risks and down-time worries?

Pratima H

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Ah! The fantasy of a grid that is intelligent, intuitive and hates wastage! Does it not sound surreal when you come across a push-button grid that marries technology and electricity in a brainy way? Where appliances can by themselves, stop unnecessary electricity; or when consumers can turn into prosumers; or when utilities can finally stanch energy theft, wastage and demand-supply flux.

As ‘wow’ as it sounds, there are many questions that will sooner or later bleed along – like what happens to basic notions of privacy and control when appliances get welded into a larger grid or if a user turns off an appliance but turns into the zone of electricity theft or if a transceiver is controlling a microwave or a TV from miles way or if the smart-grid pours over-billed charges or error-heavy fees on the user?

Grids turn smart when electric networks embrace advanced monitoring, control, and communication technologies. The idea is to create new possibilities for reliable and secure energy supply, enhanced operation efficiency for generators and distributors – and all this time offering flexible choices for prosumers.

As a combination of complex physical network systems and cyber systems, smart grids also face many technological challenges.

An interesting paper “Smart Grids: A Cyber-Physical System Perspective” from the Proceedings of the IEEE, dwells on some of these challenges in the context of cyber–physical systems and also some potential contributions that cyber–physical systems can make to smart grids.

Authors of the paper Xinghuo Yu, President-Elect of the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society and Yusheng Xue, the Editor-in Chief of the Journal of Modern Power Systems and Clean Energy also covered many implications that arise from technological advances and affect smart grids.

Let’s try to understand the paper’s insights and gleanings better in this interview as we learn about the flip-side of fog computing, energy control, smart-billings and alternative-energy avenues. And yes, should we be worried about RF exposure or wrong billings already?

What would you pick as the major challenges that smart grids face or are about to confront?

The future needs of greater flexibility, portability, safety and security for energy supply and usage, as well as environmental, societal and economical considerations, will continue to be the driving forces for Smart Grid developments. We want the Smart Grid to be not only ‘lean and mean’, but also safe and secure, as well as economical and environmentally sustainable.

This requires a rethinking of how power networks, cyber systems, and prosumers, and environmental, societal and economical systems should be integrated seamlessly to achieve these goals. The ever developing Information and Communication Technologies such as Sensors, Internet of Things, Cloud Computing, and emerging Big Data technologies will be powerful enablers to make Smart Grids smarter. Of course, they will also present significant challenges that Smart Grids have never encountered before, e.g. cyber security, uncertainties, reliability and responsiveness.

How many of these are technology-relevant? Are trends like Big Data, Fog computing, SDN, IoT, HPC modelling etc on the help side or on the challenge side here?

Trends in Big Data, Fog/Cloud Computing, SDN, IoT, HPC modeling would help bring together energy market and grid operation intelligence together in an efficient and cost effective way. But they also bring challenges such as privacy, security, reliability, accuracy – some of them have significant implications to developments in society and industry.

What is the significance of CPS (Cyber-Physical Systems) in ironing out kinks that grids have been staring at? Also, how do they assist when it comes to renewable energy progress, predictive grids, prosumers, Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) and demand side of the electricity landscape?

CPS provides technologies that seamlessly integrate cyber systems and physical systems to deliver efficiency and effectiveness. In the context of Smart Grids, they will certainly help improve efficiency and effectiveness of integration of renewable energy, better prediction of demands and future trends, and totally optimal operations.

But would CPS mitigate or accelerate concerns around security (increased surface area for hackers), speculative pricing, energy theft, privacy intrusion etc.?

CPS used in Smart Grids would expose the grids to security and safety risks associated with CPS, but they can also be used effectively to cover unexpected surge of energy demands due to speculative pricing, detect and prevent energy and privacy intrusion. These are the future directions of CPS technology developments.

What about other perceptions and criticisms that continue? Like: RF exposure health risks, tiered pricing, issues of appliances with transmitters specially with IoT on the rise (like would users be able to turn off appliances without being put in the zone of electricity theft), or transceivers remotely controlling appliances? What if energy has to be sent back to the grid (spec in case of alternative sources) or what about over-billing or inaccuracies – do smart grids increase the propensity?

Among the aforementioned perceptions and criticisms, RF exposure health risks may be a less issue since in most cases, unlike mobile/cell phones, those wireless sensors are away from crowds and human bodies so health hazard is minimum. Tiered pricing, remotely controlling appliances, while welcomed by technology-savvy prosumers to make informed decisions, may alienate older generations and deepen the digital divide.

Smart Grids would surely present technical challenges in handling trading of energy at the prosumer end but these can be addressed properly by adopting latest CPS technologies which are readily available but need to be made cheaper and more reliable in practice.

Would CPS reduce a grid’s complexity or make things fuzzier? Would the answer differ for greenfield and brownfield utilities/grids?

CPS would provide the architecture and frameworks to make a grid work smarter by interacting seamlessly between components for cyber and physical systems, regardless of whether they are from either greenfield or brownfield utilities/grids. But extracting energy from greenfield would certainly present technical challenges given the uncertain (random) nature of weather (for solar and wind energies).

How crucial is CPS for Disaster Recovery, handling fault downtime, self-healing resilience and remote repair?

This is the area where CPS would perform very well in automating detection and early-warning of faults so that timely repairs and prevention can be performed. It will also bring all actors in the Smart Grids together seamlessly to enhance its resilience.

The paper mentions: “high reliability in open, evolving, and uncertain environments, so that the system can continue to operate even in the presence of failures without fundamental changes to its original configuration……”. Can you interpret that for us?

Certainly it would be ideal for any system to operate with high reliability in open, evolving and uncertain environments; this requires significant progresses in CPS theories and technologies as well as insightful understanding of changing environments. CPS is an enabling technology but greater understanding of environmental, societal and technological challenges are needed to build into the Smart Grid operations to understand better its surroundings and respond autonomously to uncertain changes.

What do you mean when you reason there that: “These stringent engineering requirements do beg for a conservative approach to design and management, allowing substantial redundancies which may not be necessary. CPSs can help reduce the redundancies while retaining the stability and functioning of the SG.

Yes, indeed. If we know better our working environments, we would be able to better anticipate changes and address the problems accordingly. CPS aims to enhance seamless integration of cyber and physical systems so that the expensive redundancies can be reduced while not compromising security, safety of energy supply and use.

Any other interesting inferences that this paper brings forth?

We advocate a much broader way of thinking – an ecosystem based supply chain management approach, by which, for energy supply and use, we need to consider the very beginning of raw material mining to energy production, transport and usage confined within the environmental, socio-economical environments.

So, what does the big picture look like now to you, after this paper?

Smart Grid as a CPS will bring people, cyber systems, and power networks together to form a big human-computing-energy network system. This has huge implications in assessing its impact on society and industry, especially from legislation and regulation viewpoints.

How to address this would depend upon each individual country’s social and political conditions. For example, in US and Europe, the barriers are both legislative and regulative, while in developing countries such as China, the focus is placed more on regulations and technological standards.

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