Thinking Tech

What is a smart grid anyway?

Posting in Energy

I caught up with Mike Butts, director of AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) and smart grid for Baltimore Gas & Electric to learn what its ambitious smart grid and metering system will look like. It's about as close to WIFI without being WIFI. by John Dodge

I caught up with Mike Butts, director of AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure)  and smart grid for Baltimore Gas & Electric to learn what its ambitious smart grid and metering system will look like. It's about as close  to WIFI without being WIFI.

First off, BGE's Smart Grid network is not the Internet as we think of it (some are "Internet-like", though). Rather, BGE's thousands of smart meters will talk via a radio frequency wireless networking to "collection points" better known in WIFI parlance as access points. While BGE has yet to select a vendor or technology for the this short haul, Butts estimates it might require as few as 150 collection points to several thousand.

BGE smart meter

The link between the connection point and the utility known as the so-called "back haul" could be a mix of any number of wireless and wired networks. "That could be Verizon cellular, fiber or a privately-owned network we already have in place," explains Butts.

While BGE has yet to make its major technology and vendor selections, he said most of it will come from largely off-the-shelf solutions. Companies such as Sensus, Itron, Elster, Trilliant, Smart Synch, Eka Systems, Current Communications, Aclara, and Silver Spring Networks all offer wireless smart metering and grid infrastructures, but you'd only know them if you were in the business of metering water, gas and electricity.

"There's a bunch of them. Some are IP-based and others based on existing metering standards," says Butts.

The data flowing to  consumers will be eventually be near realtime power consumption, the amount of their bill to date and their rate. And they will be alerted during peak power demand so they can cut back their consumption and save money. In its pilot tests, BGE used an orb with a traffic stoplight metaphor, but plans do not call for its use its planned implementation to its two million gas and electric customers.

In fact, BGE is evaluating how customers can use displays to monitor their consumption. One under consideration would plug into a wall socket to get this data. BGE also plans to develop a web portal where this data is available from anywhere.

"In the future, we will be able to tell how much [electricity] you use every hour,"  says Butts. Google and Microsoft with its Holm software also have web based power meters in the works. Both companies are scrambling to partner with utility companies and smart grid appliance makers such as GE (ho-hum, another Google Microsoft battle is looming).

BGE, says Butts, plans on developing its own web portal. I want to check back to see if these portals talk to your smart meter or massaged data back back at the utility's central office (I'm guessing the latter). BGE is proposing and developing an entirely new smart grid rate structure and billing system.

If you're worried about the smart grid being hacked, you should be. Such an attack could trigger a massive blackout. Unauthorized access to gas and electric information could be another problem.

Butts admits that it's already happened using for hire hackers in tests. The utilities and AMI vendors, he says, hired the hackers (aka security experts) to hack the systems so they can learn more about what safeguards to implement. At the very least, the data will be encrypted and customers will have to authenticate themselves just as if they were logging into their checking account.

Security, he says, has mades "significant" strides in past two years and he is adamant that BGE will not put an infrastructure in place that fails security testing or does not meet standards. "We are getting to the point where [hackers] can't get into the networks," he says.

Some of the benefits are obvious: consumers can manage their consumption and defer appliance use to off-peak hours for rebates. Smart grid is better for the environment and utilities save scads of money building and running fewer power plants. And "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid" goes the way, of, well, The Beatles.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure