Navigant Research Blog

Blackout-Plagued India Moves toward a Smarter Grid

— July 10, 2014

Utilities in India continue to take concrete steps toward upgrading to a smarter power grid that in the last few years has suffered massive blackouts.  Though the steps are not yet widespread, they show progress toward a more modern and stable grid.

Within a 2-week span, two utilities announced contract awards for new meters.  The largest announcement came when Bangalore Electricity Supply Company ordered 1.7 million digital smart meters from Landis+Gyr.  The meters are to be delivered over the next 12 months to Bangalore Electric, which provides power to the city of Bangalore and eight districts in the state of Karnataka, population 64 million.  The second recent announcement came when West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Limited ordered more than 1 million digital smart meters from Landis+Gyr.  Headquartered in Kolkata, the utility manages electricity distribution for 96% of the state of West Bengal, population 90.3 million.  West Bengal has been at the forefront of smart metering in India, having begun upgrading devices in 2009.  This deal follows an order for 1.5 million meters from Landis+Gyr, which were deployed last year.

Progress, Perhaps

In a separate deal, Essel Utilities will deploy an unusual retrofit meter solution.  The utility will install a module, made by local metering company Aquameas, that contains a radio unit from Cyan Holdings called the CyLec 865 MHz RF device.  A total of 5,000 of these units will be attached to existing meters.  The retrofit installations are to take place in the city of Muzaffarpur, in the state of Bihar, starting late in the fourth quarter of 2014.

Earlier moves made by Indian utilities and smart grid vendors indicate that the market is progressing.  Tata Power Delhi was the first utility in India to launch an automated demand response project with smart meters.  The project in the nation’s capital is for commercial and industrial customers that can take advantage of the latest technology.  Approximately 250 customers are involved, with the potential of helping shed loads totaling 20 MW.  Project partners include IBM, Honeywell, and Landis+Gyr.  Washington state-based meter provider Itron has made India a priority for its smart metering efforts, opening a lab last year to highlight its solutions for the Indian market, where it has also been active in supplying advanced water meters.

India still has a long way to go to reach its goals of a more modern electric grid that could eventually involve some 130 million meters.  But utilities are moving ahead with projects and pilots that could bring the country’s power grid closer to the 21st century.


Utilities Respond to EV-Induced Grid Pressure

— June 12, 2014

Going green in one way often creates new energy use – or carbon emissions – in other ways.  When you opt out of paper mail in favor of email, you generate Internet data that must be processed and stored (which requires a data center, something that is heavy in both space and energy use).  It’s also the case with electric vehicles (EVs); you might never insert a card at the pump again, but you’ll use more electricity (and see a spike in your energy bill).  Likewise, with increased adoption of EVs, more generation will be required and distribution utilities will increasingly experience pressure on the electrical grid.

Recently, Itron and ClipperCreek announced the launch of their utility-connected charging station for EVs, the CS-40-SG2.  Equipped with a revenue-grade submeter that communicates specific EV charging information to the utility, the charging station also includes ZigBee Smart Energy Profile 1.1 and cellular and Wi-Fi-enabled communications technologies that provide access to smart grid capabilities such as remote monitoring and demand response (DR).

Stress Response

Utilities that anticipate (or are already experiencing) increased EV adoption are eager to shift peak electricity use in order to maintain efficiency in generation resource planning and to better manage new peaks.  This technology allows the utility to remotely monitor and control residential charging, as well as collect interval data that can help guide future planning and action.  Similarly, a smart grid-enabled submeter allows the utility to implement DR and time-of-use rates to curb electricity use for charging.

Another problem associated with EV charging in heavy penetration areas is transformer overload.  Associated with uncoordinated residential charging of EVs, this can cause both stress and congestion on the local distribution network.  Extending the utility’s monitoring capability and control to the point of use can limit the impact of responding to grid stress to the point of use or the individual charger.

It goes (almost) without saying that for this technology to be effective, the utility must already have a basic smart grid infrastructure that allows for DR functionality and grid monitoring, as well as an understanding of current and future effects of increased EV penetration.  Many utilities in the United States are updating their aging infrastructures to accommodate EVs and distributed generation.  However, the small number of existing state and federal grants for EV supply equipment suggests a sluggishness that could be due to uncertainty as to the current effects and how to best manage residential EV charging.  But as demand for EV charging resources grows, so will the need for state public utilities commissions and utilities to adapt.  The ClipperCreek/Itron charging station will be the first of many tools developed to smooth this process.


Under Pressure, Utilities Look to Self-Healing Grids

— January 7, 2014

The weekend before Christmas, one of my longtime neighbors cornered me and posed a number of questions regarding the impact of distributed renewables on the reliability of the local electric distribution grid.  The conversation suggested that utility customers are increasingly concerned with grid reliability issues, driven by media coverage of global climate change, natural disasters, presidential speeches, and financial investment.  In fact, the technologies and the breadth of the self-healing grid continue to change, as they have over the past 20 years or so.

Whether caused by global climate change or regional mega storms, the winter storm damage and outages across New England, as well as major damage to the transmission and distribution grid in New Jersey and New York due to Tropical Cyclone Sandy, have accelerated public awareness that the power grid could go down for days.  Suddenly, the need for a resilient, self-healing grid has become urgent.  And lurking in the background is the question of how capital-intensive grid improvements will be funded in this post-stimulus grant era.

Hardware to Software

In New Jersey, the damage to the grid was so extensive that PSE&G, the state’s largest publicly owned utility, said it will request rate case funding for the Energy Strong program, a 10-year, $3.9 billion proposal to protect and rebuild utility transmission and distribution systems.  In New England during November 2013, ISO New England released its Regional System Plan, which includes a wide range of transmission and distribution grid improvements that will be rate-based in future years.

A recent study on cleantech investment trends indicated that early- and mid-stage VC investments have moved away from smart grid equipment and smart metering to focus on the devices and analytics software necessary for resilient, self-healing grid systems – not only for transmission and distribution, but also for integrating distributed renewables and supporting storage devices at the edge of the grid.  These investments will ultimately take full advantage of new developments in big data analytics and the huge volume of information that will become available on the Internet of Things.

When the president of the United States talks about the self-healing grid in his 2013 State of the Union address and a widely followed investment website like The Motley Fool points to self-healing grids as a “Big Smart-Grid Investment Idea for 2014,” maybe it’s time to take a closer look.  Upcoming reports from Navigant Research will examine many of these technologies in 2014 ‑ including my next report, Flexible AC Transmission Systems.


Smart Grid Cyber Security Moves From Hype to Hard Work

— December 6, 2013

Smart grid cyber security gets a lot less hype than it did 2 years ago – and that’s a good thing.  The reason for less hype: people have stopped talking so much about it and actually started doing something about it.  Securing a smart grid is incredibly difficult work, as this blog has noted many times.  Not only are we dealing with perhaps the most critical of critical infrastructures, but some of the devices to secure are decades old with decades of service life remaining.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

The people who are talking about smart grid cyber security nowadays are the people who are actually securing the grids.  The people in the trenches.  So it’s no surprise that conferences full of security vendors with solutions for the world’s ills are fewer and farther between.

As evidence, the IEEE SmartGridComm conference in Vancouver included a full afternoon workshop on smart grid cyber security.  The speakers embodied the progression from hype to hard work in utility cyber security:

The panel was chaired by Dr. Hassan Farhangi, director of research at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.  The presentations progressed from utility business drivers down to extremely technical talks on hacking smart grids inexpensively, and then back out to cyber incident response.

The heart of my talk was observations on the current state of cyber security in utilities.  In a nutshell:  there is good technology to protect control networks, but it is rarely deployed as an integrated whole.  There are few legal requirements driving cyber security – cyber security at any given utility is only good if the executives want it to be.

Cheap & Dangerous

I had hoped that my comments would be scary enough to grab the audience’s attention for the rest of the afternoon session.  Turns out, I was the optimist of the bunch.

Justin Clarke was his usual entertaining and frightening self.  To be fair, he’s entertaining; it’s his comments that are frightening.  He displayed some easily available tools for attacking smart grids.  An inexpensive device to hack smart meter optical maintenance ports even qualifies for free shipping with Amazon Prime.  He displayed a $120 open-source Bluetooth monitoring and developing platform – in other words, a hacking tool.  Bluetooth appears increasingly in control devices such as reclosers, so that lineworkers don’t have to physically access those devices during a thunderstorm.  That is a fantastic safety advance, but if Bluetooth is not properly secured, then the price to compromise that recloser is $120.

Patrick Miller reminded us that attackers have three things that cyber security departments rarely have: time, people, and money.  The more creative attacks against control networks – Stuxnet, Duqu, Night Dragon – were clearly the work of organizations with effectively limitless resources.  Contrast that with day-to-day fights for spending budgets that is the life of a chief security officer.

Finally, Frank Turbide discussed the activities of the CCIRC.  Incidents run from sophisticated denial-of-service attacks to poor implementations that have control devices linked directly to the Internet.  The CCIRC issues alerts on current threats and vulnerabilities to its member organizations, of which the most common are malware and phishing attacks.  During the past 3 months, energy and utilities have been the second-most attacked industry after telecommunications.

There are still lots of attackers out there, and useful attack tools are dropping quickly in price.  And yet, there are good guys looking at more efficient and thorough ways to protect a control network.  There is still hope for protecting our control networks, so let us remain vigilant but optimistic.


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