Power grid getting smart

The federal government is about to add some serious networking to the nation’s power grid, and it’s about time.

My colleague Carolyn Duffy Marsan has two great articles on our site about the effort, zooming in on the question of whether this new network should use IPv6. The main alternative is IPv4, but just about everyone who knows anything about the issue advocates the newer IPv6.

The main reason is address space. One of the primary reasons that anyone needs to move to IPv6 is that we’re coming up on the limit of IPv4’s publicly addressable devices, which is about 4.3 billion, as Marsan points out.

IPv6, by contrast, supports a really high number of addresses. When we first started writing about this issue, we said the address space was unlimited – and of course, it’s not. But the number of addresses is so high that it’s hard to even express in words. Marsan has a good approach: “an inconceivably huge amount of devices: 2 to the 128th power.”

The upgrade to the power grid, called Smart Grid, will require tens of millions of addresses and will need some headroom. The White House says it wants to deploy more than 40 million smart meters in homes and businesses, more than 200,000 smart transformers, 850 sensors across the country, 700 automated substations and more.

Funding of $3.4 billion for this effort has already been set aside, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. More will be contributed by the industry, for a total of $8 billion. This is separate from the part of the bill building out the nation's broadband infrastructure.

The smart meters would allow home and business owners to access energy prices, which change based on time of day, so that they can run electrical equipment when the rates are low. If lots of people pay attention to these rates, they can reduce the chance of a blackout and reduce the need for an expensive standby power plant to meet peak demand. The smart transformers should be able to tell power companies that there is a problem before they fail. The goals are lower energy costs and fewer blackouts.

On the flip side, you have to think that the biggest concern would be security; Network World’s Scott Bradner raised this issue last March. The national coordinator for Smart Grid interoperability acknowledges the issue as well.

It’s almost as if you don’t want your meters to be too smart, because “smart” devices are often more hackable and require more maintenance. And if they install Windows on your power meter, you know we’re in trouble.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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