The idea of smart grids-the use of a variety of telecommunications and IT technologies to monitor and better manage energy-ties together so many threads of what is going on in the world today that it may be possible to knit a sweater or two from the topic.
Here are some of the reasons that smart people -- vendors, carriers and others -- are thinking about smart grids:
- Smart grids are closely tied with the green ethos that increasingly dominates public discourse.
- The approach saves money for the user of the technology, something that is essential during these tough times.
- Smart grids can be, in essence, the anchor tenants of more ambitious machine-to-machine (M2M) networks. M2M refers to communications sessions in which unmanned widgets are the senders and receivers of the information.
- Carriers like big projects, and those in which the pain for subscribers to switch networks is greatest.
- Finally-and perhaps most significantly, at least in the short term-the economic stimulus bill provides a good deal of funding for such projects.
Though the goal is clear and the need apparent, this isn't going to happen overnight. InformationWeek takes a close look, and paints what many will see as a positive picture. The first figure is a good one: The stimulus package will provide $10.9 billion in matching grants and loans. The writer describes what Duke Energy already has done, even without the stimulus as motivation. The power company has spent $35 million and pledged to pony up $1 billion more. A nice graphic outlines IT's role, which includes automation systems; sensors and monitoring devices; data collection systems and communications systems. The piece adds that smart grid and related parts of the stimulus bill could create 370,000 jobs.
Clearly, momentum is beginning to build. Last week, for instance, AT&T and SmartSynch announced that they will work together on smart grid projects using the carriers' wireless network. The story describes SmartSynch, which already is in use in more than 100 commercial networks in North America.
There is a good deal of concern-including an article on CNN.com last week-about the security status of a smart grid. The fears are distilled in this Earth2Tech piece. The basic idea is that using Internet protocol (IP) to control the nation's power has a big upside-but puts a lot of very valuable eggs in one basket. The fear is that if the viruses, worms and other cyber detritus are not adequately guarded against, the power grid will be vulnerable to criminals in general and terrorists in particular. Indeed, the story says some people maintain that Chinese crackers may already have caused some problems, though no details are offered. The story says the keys are the development of security standards and an open platform.
The industry is listening to the commentary. Last week, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) voted to form the group P2030. The mandate, according to a report in EE Times, is to write "a high-level electronics guide to tomorrow's smart grid," according to the story. About 40 companies are interested in the IEEE group. The commentary says that smart grids now are abstract, and describes some of the work that the group-or subgroups it launches-may do to make things more tangible. In a separate move, Arcadian Networks, Areva, Avista, Infinia, Itron, Microsoft, Patton Boggs and Topia are among organizations sponsoring the National Smart Grid Conference. The goal is to develop national and regional guidelines for the federal investment in smart grid technology. It is slated for Spokane on April 6 and 7.