Smart Grid lessons to be learned for the Internet - 22 May 2009


The following is a summary of a collection of comments on blogs and recent articles on smart grids. Thanks to my colleagues Bill St Arnaud and Frank Coluccio.

Cisco recently announced that Smart Grids will eclipse the size of the Internet and Google announced its plans to launch Home Energy Management software. Even some telephone companies are looking to get into the business of home energy management. Can you imagine the same companies that brought you the two tiered Internet, are now going scaling up to bring you the two tiered electrical grid. Not only do they want to manage your Internet application but they want apply the same mindset to managing your appliances.

The big challenge with today's Smart Grids strategy is that it is all based on managing peak load and are designed around a "gosplan" utility megawatt mindset architecture of huge centralized databases for the acquisition, management and control of consumers meters and appliances. (Another aspect of Smart grids is for utilities to better manage their own infrastructure which makes sense, but that is separate issue than managing consumer devices) .The main beneficiary is not the consumer but the utility operator in avoiding having to build new power plants for peak load. The environmental benefits are minimal and the savings to the consumer are marginal (around 10%) based on data from the Smart Grid trial at PNNL in Washington State. There are also huge challenges with respect to security as outlined by Rahul Tongia at CMU (tongia@cmu.edu). Imagine if someone hacked such a network and were able to turn off and on your appliances and electricity at will.

Innovation rarely comes from large monopolies like electrical utilities and telcos. But the Internet research and education community has a long of history of innovation particularly in adopting principles of the Internet in terms of intelligence at the edge and broadband network infrastructure as exemplified in the excellent paper "Unleashing Waves of Innovation" http://www.ntia.doc.gov/broadbandgrants/comments/488.pdf. R&E networks around the world have been instrumental in network innovation and working with communities in broadband infrastructure such as initiatives led by Educause, Internet 2, NLR, KAREN, i2Cat, etc. I believe the same organizations have the capability, infrastructure and knowledge to pioneer new techniques for smart grids built around the principle of intelligence at the edge and customer control. Universities, schools and research institutions in partnership with R&E networks are well suited to work with communities on exploring new architectures and solution for Smart grids that will have genuine benefits for the consumer (as opposed to the utility) as well as the environment.

Germany happens to be a world leader in this area and has many great examples of new smart grid architectures where consumers can also supply power to the grid. The 5th estate video compares and contrasts the German approach to what is largely happening in North America. In Germany consumers can arrange for their own meter independent of the utility and subscribe to different energy providers.

Links:

Great 5th estate video on green in Germany versus Canada in Smart grids and renewable energy http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/2008-2009/the_gospel_of_green/video.html

Opportunity is promising, but utility cooperation will be the challenge By Sean Buckley, Telecommunications Magazine, March 31, 2009

http://www.telecommagazine.com/newsglobe/article.asp?HH_ID=AR_5074

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