Q&A: Why IP is the right choice for Smart Grid

NIST coordinator Arnold explains pros, cons of using Internet standards to upgrade the power grid

The biggest network upgrade in the United States today is Smart Grid, a multibillion dollar modernization of the electricity grid that involves supporting real-time, two-way digital communications between electric utilities and their increasingly energy-conscious customers.

Will Smart Grid power IPv6?

Worth an estimated $20 billion this year, the Smart Grid market has attracted the attention of every major networking vendor, including Cisco, IBM, Microsoft and Google. These vendors are pushing for Smart Grid to adopt common network standards rather than special-purpose protocols.

Network World interviewed George Arnold, National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, about where Internet standards and architecture will fit into the Smart Grid strategy. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

How significant of a data communications upgrade is Smart Grid?

The Smart Grid has to have a very robust communications infrastructure underlying it. If you think of the ISO stack, it covers all seven layers. The functionality ultimately is at the application layer to support things like consumer energy management, electrical vehicles and so forth.

One of the facts about the electricity grid in the United States is that it is highly fragmented: 80% is owned and operated by private companies, including about 3,100 electric utilities. This is not like the AT&T network of old where you have one national infrastructure. It's really a system of systems. That's where standards play a very important role because they provide a common set of network protocols that can run end-to-end over a variety of underlying physical and link layer technologies.

The part [of Smart Grid] that most users would see is at the distribution level, where you have a smart meter that is your building's interface into the grid. With Smart Grid, you have the ability for a smart metering infrastructure to send near real-time measurements of your energy usage and also to be able to signal when there are overload conditions on the grid and there needs to be some demand response to adjust the load.

As you get into the heart of the grid, where you have bulk power generation plants and the need to have real-time controls for SCADA systems…these are very different communications requirements. Reliability and security are key, but there's also the question of quality of service attributes such as latency. You need to close a relay in milliseconds. That is a very different environment than gathering electricity usage information from a resident every 15 minutes.

Can you characterize the progress NIST has made with its Smart Grid standards project?

I come from the telecom industry. One thing I like to do is compare what we are doing to next-generation standards in telecom. You're familiar with NGN, the Next Generation Networks standards [developed by the ITU]. That was about a five-year process. The Smart Grid is a much more complex infrastructure than the NGN. The development of standards for the full vision of the Smart Grid is going to be a multi-year effort. But in some sense it will be never-ending because the requirements will evolve and the technology will evolve. Where we are today is that the deployment of some aspects of Smart Grid is racing way ahead of the standards. Much of the investment is going into the metering infrastructure. While there are standards, they are pretty loose. There's a tremendous sense of urgency to get them tightened up.

We began our process in April. We laid out a three-phase plan. Our first phase, which we are in the process of completing, is to get out Release 1 of a set of standards for the Smart Grid. We are trying to identify existing standards that could be applied and the major gaps that need to be filled. We released a draft document in September. It's open for public comment. It will be finalized before the end of the year.

But that is just the beginning of what is going to be a multi-year effort. In Phase 2, we're setting up a more permanent governance structure called the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel to guide the ongoing development of the standards. We just posted on our Web site some of the documents that define the draft charter for the panel and information on how to apply for membership. The board will be set up the week of Nov. 16 at Grid-Interop 2009 in Denver, a conference.

Phase 3 deals with testing and certification. This is all about interoperability, so you want to be able to test compliance to the standards. We're going to have a framework that will address both compliance to the standards and interoperable testing.

How will Internet standards and the Internet architecture fit into NIST's strategy for Smart Grid?

IP and the Internet standards will be a protocol of choice in the Smart Grid. There may be specialized applications where it's not the right fit, and so we're falling short of saying IP has to be used everywhere. Where you have SCADA systems, where you have to have response times in milliseconds, where the requirement is not routing data around a network but the requirement is real-time control of a critical asset, those are cases where a specialized protocol historically has been used and may still have a role. When you get to communications with the hundreds of millions of devices that will interact with the Smart Grid, the smart appliances and so forth, clearly IP has overwhelming advantages in terms of ubiquity, implementation and its ability to create interoperable infrastructure as a low cost.

What do you see as the benefits of Smart Grid adopting Internet-based standards?

Interoperability. The grid can take advantage of all the technology that has been developed for decades for other applications. One thing that is interesting about the Smart Grid is that the environments are so varied. The electric grid in an urban area like New York City is very different than you'd find in a rural environment in Montana. So are the communications requirements. You need to be able to utilize many different physical and link layer technologies to move data around effectively, and IP provides that.

Another benefit of IP is future proofing the Smart Grid. That's very important. The Smart Grid is in some sense like the Internet in that we can hardly image what applications will be enabled through the integration of IT into the grid. So the ability to evolve and have an open architecture in which the industry can find better ways to help customers manage energy is very critical.

What drawbacks are there if Smart Grid adopts Internet-based standards?

The biggest concern is ensuring security. It's possible to design highly secure networks using Internet protocols. IP stemmed out of Defense applications, and it is used in that environment. But you have to have a secure architecture and you have to apply a very disciplined approach to identify what the vulnerabilities are and use the correct tools and processes to mitigate them. I would say that is true of any protocol, not just IP.

Should Smart Grid mandate IPv6?

IPv6 has a lot of advantages. I don't see any downside to using IPv6. It's a no brainer in terms of the direction of Smart Grid. However, we also have to support current technology. There are meter manufacturers that are already using IP, and they are using IPv4. We need to have a strategy that leverages technology that is currently available and evolves it into the long-term vision. Clearly, you can design private networks with private address space using IPv4. You can secure them. This is possible. The question of whether we need to make a flash cut to IPv6 vs. whether we should accommodate IPv4 in some of these applications is something we have to study. We can't just make a snap decision. It requires some careful review. But there's no question in my mind that IPv6 is the right long-term choice.

When you get to the consumer environment, with appliances and devices that need to be addressable, you can really see why IPv6 is necessary because the IPv4 address space is exhausted. There is a lot of discussion about smart meters, and this is where some of the security issues become very important. The meters themselves are not consumer devices. They are part of the utility’s infrastructure. There are about 150 million meters in the country associated with buildings. One of the functions of those meters is to connect and disconnect to a building so a utility doesn't have to roll out a truck. You don't want to have an architecture that allows a hacker to be able to remotely disconnect 150 million meters from the grid. That really needs to be a locked-down architecture.

What message would you like to send to the U.S. IT industry about the Smart Grid project?

IT people do have this tendency to view that it's all about the IT and forget about the business application. That applies here. You really need to think about the Smart Grid in terms of what are the societal objectives and what are the business applications. It's about integrating renewable energy and making more efficient use of energy. That has to be driving the requirements of Smart Grid and the application infrastructure.

What is your background?

I worked at Bell Labs for 30 years before going to NIST. I was in charge of the global standards and intellectual property organization at Bell Labs in the late 1990s. I'm an electrical engineer and computer scientist by training. My background is very helpful in bridging between the two communities. I've been at NIST for three years. I just took on this role in April.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)