Just the beginning
On the sidelines
While the concept of the smart grid is embraced by utilities, consumers and energy conservationists, there are several barriers to making the visions a reality.
Security is a significant issue, as a cyber attack to the power grid is deemed a significant homeland-security threat, because it easily could be accompanied by a terrorist attack, as a literally powerless citizenry is most vulnerable. In addition, California regulators are debating what customer energy-usage information should remain confidential and what can be shared.
From a technology standpoint, most of the communications capabilities needed for the smart grid exist today, although there are no national standards at the moment. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is working to address the lack-of-standards issue and is expected to complete that work next year; meanwhile, many utilities already are deploying smart-grid capabilities into their systems using a variety of communications methods, including unlicensed mesh networks — a scenario that has some utility officials worried.
“I think there’s a fear in the industry that there might be stranded assets once NIST and the other regulators determine what the open standards should be,” Bender said. “So we’re kind of seeing an interesting point in the smart grid right now.”
Another key issue for utilities is spectrum for the wireless communications needed for the smart grid. Currently, utilities typically use 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum for their metering needs, although a few also leverage data capabilities in their UHF networks. Bender said that utilities would be willing to discuss potential partnerships with public safety regarding its proposed 700 MHz network from an emergency-response standpoint, but whether utilities would use that spectrum for real-time monitoring-and-control functions would depend on the capacity of the system and priority-access arrangements.
Dedicated licensed spectrum would be ideal, and Bender said the utility industry would consider any band that would be suitable for wide-area coverage. In Canada, the 1800-1830 MHz band is allocated for utility usage, and many utility officials would like to see the U.S. take similar action, so that it would be easier for devices to be built that could serve both markets — which should result in them costing less.
Of course, all utilities answer to state regulatory bodies that set their rates and determine their cost structures. And while state regulators generally have embraced the notion of the smart grid and the need for utilities to recover their costs associated with the corollary transformation of the power grid, many have not taken formal action, said Brett Kilbourne, UTC’s director of regulatory services and associate counsel.
“A lot of states are basically on the sidelines, watching and waiting,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re opposed to it, but they’re waiting to see what happens.”
Gunther said smart-grid activity on the state level depends largely on the power needs in that location.
“For those states that have high energy prices, that have constraints … they get it,” Gunther said. “California understands it. Texas understands it, Ohio understands it. But the state of Tennessee could care less about this smart-grid hooey. “[They say], ‘Transmission is plentiful, generation is plentiful, rates are relatively low, so why should we bother?’ But those states that need it, they know that infrastructure costs money and utilities have to get rate recovery.”
The Dark Side: Average Cost
for 1 Hour of Power Interruption
|Telephone ticket sales||$72,000|
|Airline reservation system||$90,000|
|Credit card operation||$2,580,000|