Most of the world relies on electricity systems build around 50 years ago. These are inefficient and cannot offer an appropriate response to today´s urgent global challenges. The estimated investment requirements in energy infrastructure are $13 trillion for the next 20 years. This poses an eminent need and opportunity to shift towards a low carbon, efficient and clean energy system. Smart grids will be a strong enabler of this transition.

 

What is a smart grid?

A smart grid is an intelligent, digitized energy network delivering electricity in an optimal way from source to consumption. This is achieved by integrating information, telecommunication and power technologies with the existing electricity system. The benefits of a smart grid include:

  • improved efficiency and reliability of electricity supply;
  • integration of more renewable energy into existing networks;
  • support for the development of electric vehicles at scale;
  • new solutions for customers to optimize their electricity consumption;
  • reduction of carbon emissions.

Governments are increasingly recognizing the value of smart grids. For example, China aims at building a strong smart grid by 2020, the U.S. has dedicated $4.5bn of its fiscal stimulus package specifically for the purpose of funding smart grid development. Similar compelling initiatives are currently ongoing in Europe, Japan, Australia and South Korea.

 

Are smart grids insured to prevail?

A smart grid means adding sensors and software to an existing grid that will provide utilities and individuals with new information which will help them react to changes quickly.

For example, if a tree falls on a power line, an entire neighborhood loses power, and current grid utility employees need to manually reroute power, which takes time. With a smart grid, sensors and software would detect and promptly reroute the power around the problem, limiting the issue to fewer homes.

But there´s more. The price of electricity changes throughout the day, but this cannot be seen with current meters installed in households. Electricity may be expensive during peak hours and cheap late at night. With new smart meters, a washing machine, for example, could be set up to run at times when power is cheap. This gives more control over energy bills and helps avoid blackouts at peak hours.

The smart grid also means new ways of using renewable energy. Power generation can now be distributed across multiple sources, so the system is more stable and efficient. It´s this ability to communicate and manage electricity that makes the grid smarter and helps us avoid burning more fossil fuels in the future.

With the participation of informed consumers, the smart grid will replace the ageing infrastructure of today´s grid and utilities will be better able to communicate with clients in order to electricity demands.

 

Grid security challenges

Expanding smart grids at scale will be challenging, but successful pilot projects can set the direction. From debates and research in some of the 90 pilot projects underway worldwide, a series of lessons came up that can improve the effectiveness of existing and planned pilot programs and accelerate their transition to full scale roll-out.

But before moving forward, it is important to consider security threats, vulnerabilities and solutions for the smart grid.

The internet has brought the possibility of constant communication through computers, but it can also cause a lot of problems regarding privacy and financial security. Smart grids will depend upon the developing and deploying of considerable computer and communication frameworks that support significantly increased situational awareness and allow finer-grained command and control.

The core system is the Smart Grid communications network. It connects the various subsystems and enables bidirectional communication between them. Offering communication capacities to physical subsystems, they become exposed to attacks. The number of points from which someone could gain access to the Smart Grid network system increases.

Security in a large system has three aspects: integrity, availability and confidentiality.

  • Integrity refers to the reliability of data and resources. Its deficiency can lead to false data injection into the system.
  • Availability refers to the fact that the system must be accessible and available for monitoring and control at any time. Lack of availability can lead to Denial of Service attacks (DoS), and the deprivation of certain measurements can destabilize the system.
  • Confidentiality refers to the ability to keep information secure and to prevent unauthorized users.

Accordingly, there are different kinds of security issues. With respect to smart grid integrity: with the commissioning of Smart Grid systems, consumers will have access to intelligent measuring devices (smart meters) installed in their homes. The potential threat to which the power system operators are subject is the receipt of values lower than actual consumption. Changing measurement data provided to consumers, or even at the level of transmission or distribution can lead to errors in estimating the status and control structure of the energy system.

With respect to smart grid availability, the main target of attacks aimed at energy system availability is the consumer. A cyber-attack can occur in the software that runs the smart meter to a consumer´s home or business, resulting in a power outage. A particular type of cyber-attack aimed at smart grid availability is Denial of Service (DoS).

As far as smart grid privacy is concerned, in a modern energy system, privacy issues are related to security concerns of consumer data. Energy operators collect and store information about users, such as name, address and data on consumption.

 

Solutions

Some of the proposed security solutions for the smart grid are the following:

  • Vulnerability assessments must be performed at least annually to make sure that the elements that interface with the perimeter are secure.
  • Devices should support Virtual Private Network (VPN) architectures for secure communication.
  • From the huge amount of transferred data, utilities should only collect the data needed to achieve their goals.

One thing is for sure, the traditional power systems are moving towards a new era of digitally enabled smart grids that will upgrade communications, efficiency, improve reliability and reduce the cost of electricity services.

 

 

Eduard Cristian Vasile is an EPG Junior Analyst

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