I can’t write enough about the energy, utilities, and smart-grid space as we continue to advance into the 21st century. There is so much opportunity for smart-grid modernization. It seems there’s no way around the fact that a smart grid is necessary for the IoT innovations that lie ahead, some of which we can’t even predict, but we know changes are certainly underway and more are on the horizon.
With that in mind, there are some serious challenges ahead for smart grid in addition to all the opportunities. In fact if you look deeper into the smart grid, it’s clear that many of the hurdles and challenges are not only being faced in the United States, but they are something that is being faced on a global basis. The smart grid is proving to be an important part of every nation’s way forward in an IoT-enabled world.
Let’s take a moment to look at the smart grid through the eyes of the IEC (Intl. Electrotechnical Commission). The IEC, which was founded way back in 1906, is a global organization focused on the preparation and publication of international standards for electrical, electronic, and related technologies collectively as “electro-technology.” So it’s important to understand the hurdles it anticipates as they relate to standards.
First, the IEC says there’s a lack of awareness about mature standards and best practices that are already available and that could be applied to smart grid deployments.
Without an understanding of what’s already been learned by others’ implementations, smart-grid system designers are essentially reinventing the wheel.
This is not only extremely inefficient, it’s not moving the space forward as quickly as it would if there were more awareness of best practices and existing standards.
Another standards-related issue affecting smart grid adoption is “piecemealing.” What I mean by this is trying to piece different standards together that were developed by different development organizations. The IEC says this is happening, and, in many cases, even if the standards work together now, this is not a very good long-term fix.
There are also some technical challenges hindering smart grid growth. The electrical network is made up of tons of distributed nodes that are tightly coupled and operating in realtime.
The IEC points out that the reality is different stakeholders are often responsible for different parts of the system. What’s more, each stakeholder might make different choices about evolution and use. And this leads nicely to the elephant in the room when it comes to smart-grid hurdles: interoperability.
The different elements of a smart-grid system must speak the same language in order to achieve optimal speed for information exchange. To get to the next level of adoption, it would go a long way if utilities could buy pieces of equipment from any vendor without having to worry that these pieces will work with existing equipment.
I should also mention that equipment must be interoperable on all levels—not just the physical level, but also on a systems management level. (It’s interesting to note that some machine companies are working to leverage digital technologies to manage critical assets among all systems).
Another challenge for the smart grid that is worth noting has to do with data. Grid modernization is a great thing, as we discussed in a previous column, but it’s also opening a huge can of worms in terms of big data. What seems like all of the sudden, grid managers must figure out how to manage and leverage huge quantities of data resulting from a connected grid. As we know, IoT deployments that provide unprecedented access to realtime data aren’t being fully realized unless managers find ways to turn data into actionable intelligence.
When you’re talking about big data on the scale of a smart grid, the process of retrieving, storing, analyzing, and presenting insights from data can be a series of formidable tasks—to say the least.
As with many other IoT solutions, safety and security concerns are also hurdles for smart-grid adoption. Any time you’re talking about a huge network of devices and entities, security has to come up.
This is especially true when the service this network provides is part of the critical infrastructure. For instance, an insecure smart grid could be seen as an opportunity, say by a terrorist, as a way to negatively affect millions of people simultaneously. Similarly, a connected electric grid could potentially open the door to things like utility fraud or the loss of customer data on a massive scale. It’s a real concern.
The final hurdle that needs to be addressed is the cost of infrastructure to support a smart grid. Here in the U.S., we struggle with financing our infrastructure for a host of reasons, ranging from political reasons to a simple denial of the seriousness of the problem. Across the globe, the infrastructure issue is also holding smart-grid deployments back. I recently read a case study about the challenges of implementing smart-grid technologies in Africa, and that was truly interesting.
According to the University of Cape Town, Africa’s power grid has remained largely unchanged for a century, and existing infrastructure can’t keep up with the continent’s growing demand for power. What’s more, in general, Africa’s existing systems tend to be inefficient. However, a smart grid could address many of the challenges African nations are facing. Some countries, like South Africa, are already ahead of the game and working on deploying smart meters and other smart-grid technologies.
However, an underdeveloped infrastructure in other African nations will be a huge hurdle for smart-grid implementations, which many governments recognize as the way forward for their citizens.
These are just some of the major hurdles facing the smart grid, but as we discussed and we will continue in many more columns, the benefits are clear. From virtually eliminating outages and reducing environmental impact, a smart grid is the future of society.
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