What Is a Smart Grid?
The country’s electric grid was largely built in the 1890s and enhanced throughout the ensuing decades as technology evolved, according to an article on SmartGrid.gov. The grid currently has more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1 million megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines, according to the article.
What makes a regular electric grid a “smart” grid? It comes down to digital technologies that enable “two-way communication between the utility and its customers, and the sensing along the transmission lines,” according to SmartGrid.gov.
Like the internet, the smart grid has a multitude of components, including “controls, computers, automation, and new technologies and equipment working together,” but in the case of the smart grid, “these technologies will work with the electrical grid to respond digitally to our quickly changing electric demand.”
“As we enter National Cybersecurity Awareness Month, it’s important to make sure your smart grid is a secure smart grid that includes a number of technologies to increase real-time situational awareness and the ability to support renewables and system automation to increase the reliability, efficiency and safety of the electric grid,” says Jeffrey Tufts, Cisco’s global energy segment leader. “There are a number of secure communications solutions that public utilities are using to support the newest smart grid applications including advanced metering infrastructure, distribution automation, voltage optimization and substation automation.”
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How Can Smart Grid Technology Benefit Smart Cities?
Smart grid technologies have numerous benefits for smart cities that deploy them, either on their own or in cooperation with utilities. Smart grids can provide “more efficient transmission of electricity as well as quicker restoration after power disturbances,” Tufts says.
“The smart grid also improves reliability and safety of the electric transmission and distribution grid via connected assets,” Tufts says. “Utilities benefit from reduced operations and management costs, which in turn means lower power costs for consumers. The smart grid also integrates with customer-owned power generation systems, including renewable energy systems.”
Pervasive communications is critical for smart cities in general and smart grids in particular, Tufts says. “At the most basic level, the network that is deployed by the utility in support of smart grids could be extended by the municipality to deploy other essential public services such as smart city lighting, traffic and water solutions,” he says.
According to a document from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “The Future of Smart Cities: Cyber-Physical Infrastructure Risk,” a smart grid — meaning smart power distribution and transmissions — includes various “automation, networking, and cyber-physical devices” that use “SCADA systems and other automation devices to increase response times to localized power outages and to gather grid performance data faster.”
Sensors, DHS says, allow utilities to “gather real-time usage information, better incorporate embedded renewable energy generation into the grid, and isolate system interruptions before they spread.”
Networked sensors on transformers let utilities “track equipment performance and better anticipate failures, reducing outages and repair costs,” the document notes.
“Finally, increased communication networks throughout distribution and transmission systems will improve overall system intelligence, allowing for better incorporation of demand-response programs, which let customers track energy availability and pricing to make consumption decisions accordingly,” DHS states.
Upon approval by a utility commission, the utility (whether municipal or investor-owned) can use investments in its network infrastructure “beyond the initial smart grid use cases to provide a value-added service to the city while also creating a potential revenue opportunity for itself,” Tufts says.
Smart grids in a smart city “also provide the opportunity to support power initiatives such as distributed generation (rooftop solar), demand response (time-of-day billing), microgrids and other programs that would benefit the citizens,” Tufts adds.
READ MORE: Find out how smart cities can use data effectively.
Smart Grid Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities
This interconnectedness of devices that come with a smart grid “introduces cyber-physical technologies that connect cyber systems to physical systems, thereby removing the barrier between the cyber and physical worlds,” DHS notes.
“Removing the cyber-physical barriers in an urban environment presents a host of opportunities for increased efficiencies and greater convenience, but the greater connectivity also expands the potential attack surface for malicious actors,” DHS states. “In addition to physical incidents creating physical consequences, exploited cyber vulnerabilities can result in physical consequences, as well.”
Connecting critical infrastructure to a communication network increases cybersecurity risk, Tufts adds.
A smart grid comprises a wide range of communication systems, power system sensors and control points, as well as computational assets. “Each unique component, architecture and network have their own cybersecurity vulnerabilities, from nontargeted attacks like user errors or malware and natural disasters to targeted cyberattacks, such as hacking the control system to switch power off in a city or region,” Tufts says.
The electric grid is considered critical national infrastructure and the increasing reliance on connected monitoring and control points makes the cybersecurity of the smart electric grid a major focus for utilities, regulators and the federal government, Tufts says. “Subsequently, the level of effort and investment that utilities are making to meet regulation and board requirements is driving the adoption of leading-edge cybersecurity technology and processes,” he says.