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Optoelectronics & Communications

Modernizing the U.S. power grid: smart doesn’t come smoothly

SPIE Newsroom 
Updated 1 June 2010

The United States power grid has become dangerously antiquated over the past few decades. California, the Southwest, and Northeast have all been hard hit by power shortages and blackouts in recent years. Aging technology means more frequent blackouts, a greater vulnerability to computer hackers, and most importantly, energy inefficiency. New power lines, new management methods, and better system efficiency will be needed to bring the United States up to date.

As part of the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration has pledged $3.4 billion toward "smart grid" technology. "Smart" grids and meters in theory will be able stabilize the power grid in the event of a failure, better incorporate alternative energies, and vastly improve overall grid efficiency. Utility companies have begun installing smart meters in a few states like Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, and Maine. As of January 2010, 13.6 million smart meters had been installed across the United States.

Smart Meter
Figure 1. Smart meter installed in a home. Photo courtesy Southern California Edison.
Sticker Shock

Unfortunately, the first few rounds of new installations have not always gone as smoothly as hoped.

Customers in California and Texas have complained about higher bills and inefficient systems. Pacific Gas & Electric has already faced a lawsuit from customers when utility bills went up. PG&E customers complained to the California Public Utilities Commission that the utility had told customers that smart meters would help them save money on their electric bills.

Prompted by these complaints, California regulators ordered PG&E to provide details of its smart meter program. On May 10, PG&E released a report acknowledging that thousands of its smart meters have had technical problems and that its customer service has been insufficient.

"We've let some of our customers down with the quality of customer service they received," Helen Burt, PG&E senior vice president and chief customer officer, said in a statement. About 43,000 of the 5.5 million new meters have had some type of problem, according to Burt, though only eight meters were improperly recording energy usage. Others were improperly installed, could not properly store data or were unable to send wireless information. Burt also noted that the smart meter failure rate, at 1%, was still better than the failure rate of traditional meters, which is 3%.

Secure Line

Another big issue is security. This includes not only the customer's information as it is sent to the utilities, but also vulnerability to outside cyber attacks. In April 2009 reports surfaced of hackers based in Russia and China electronically breaking into U.S. sewage and electrical systems. A study spanning 14 countries conducted earlier this year by the McAfee security firm found that half of all power plant and utility owners reported their systems had been breached by hackers. This raises serious concerns about converting utilities to a system that is entirely online.

Some citizens are also worried about protecting their own privacy and security, concerned that electric companies may profile customers who use high amounts of energy outside of normal hours.

Utility companies are confident that their meters are secure. Southern California Edison (SCE) "has conducted extensive security planning and testing, and has developed security solutions, many of which were adapted from the banking and defense sectors," says Charles Cameron, SCE corporate communications. "All information transmitted between customer meters and the company is encrypted using U.S. Government-approved and recommended standards. Similar security standards have been implemented for information transmitted between the meter and customer-owned, 'smart' communicating appliances."

The industry is also taking measures to beef up security. An industry committee formed by the Commerce Department agency is currently developing power-line standards for monitoring and managing residential energy usage. NIST's Smart Grid Interoperability Panel-Cyber Security Working Group (SGIP-CSWG) expects to formally release its Smart Grid Cyber Security Strategy and Requirements in July. It hopes to fill critical gaps in existing standards before June 2011.

Independent companies like Cisco, Digital Lumens, VeriSign and Revere Security, all of which met at a Smart Grid conference in May to discuss future solutions, are also developing technologies to prevent eavesdropping and message manipulation, and secure platforms to prevent tampering with meters.

smar meter install
Figure 2. A smart meter is installed at a residence. Photo courtesy Southern California Edison.
Tracking tools

One of the biggest reasons for smart meters, from the consumer perspective, is keeping better track of energy use. However, in many cases utilities are installing meters without providing customers with access to that information.

According to Cleantech Market Intelligence, less than half of all smart meters shipped globally by 2013 will include home area network (HAN) capabilities, although the North American HAN-enabled meter penetration rate will be higher, at 81%. HAN technology is what provides access to individual home owners. Even SCE customers, which have HAN-enabled smart meters, won't be able to access them until later this year. Sixty-six percent of respondents in a survey last December said they would like more communication from utilities on smart meters, and less than 30% could recall getting any information beyond their monthly bill. In other situations, the grid can't even talk to itself; less than 20 percent of the 48,000 energy distribution substations have any automation, according to John D. McDonald, general manager of marketing for GE Energy.

Once the HAN systems are in place, though, there are many options to choose from for monitoring power consumption. Members of utility cooperative in Minnesota can log into a program called MyMeter to see an up to date accounting of their electrical usage.

"In late 2010, customers with smart meters installed will be able to monitor their daily energy usage online at Southern California Edison's Web site," says Coleman.

Google recently released a free product called PowerMeter that allows users to track their power usage in near real time. Other independent companies offer systems for consumers that are accessible on smart grid devices, the Web, iPhone-enabled displays, and energy controls.

A product created by Zensi, purchased by Belkin earlier this year, goes one step further by specifically measuring the electrical output of each appliance in the house using each machine's high-frequency electrical noise produced when different devices are turned on, and does not require HAN capabilities.

"It gives people information down to individual appliances and categories rather than a single aggregate number, thus providing more actionable information to the consumer," says Shwetak Patel, co-founder of Zensi and professor at University of Washington, Seattle.

Making sure that consumers are able to access their smart meters' information will become especially important if the FCC Broadband Plan, proposed earlier this year, is adopted in its current form. Among other things, the plan urges States to require electric utilities to provide consumers access to and control of their own digital energy information, including real-time information from smart meters and historical consumption, price and bill data over the Internet. The Plan states that consumers and their authorized third parties must have secure, non-discriminatory access to energy data in standardized, machine-readable formats and that data should be made available in the same form in which it is collected, in as close to real-time as possible.

Metering up

Despite the issues that have arisen, there are some benefits that have come out of this transition to smart meters. One is new jobs. Start-up companies are creating security programs specifically for the smart meters. Companies like Google and Zensi are producing electricity-tracking software and devices. Semiconductor companies are competing with smart-grid chip manufacturer Zigbee for a place in the smart systems market, with more penetration outside the U.S. Other companies are being contracted by larger utilities like PG&E and SCE to install the meters themselves.

In other news, a new study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO, proposes that 35 percent of electricity could come from alternate energies without installing new interstate transmission lines, but rather will require smart planning and cooperation between utilities.

Upgrading a large system like the electric grid will not be an easy task, but with good networking, both electronic and personal, consumers will be more empowered, the U.S. electric system more efficient, and our power safer and more reliable than before.


Beth Kelley
Beth Kelley is a contributing writer and editor for SPIE.