Smart Grid May Present New Opportunities for Broadband, Say Experts

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2009 – Revamping the nation’s energy grid for the 21st Century could increase demand for a nationwide broadband network. But a group of experts from government, standards-setting bodies and industry told senators Tuesday that all stakeholders must first do a better job of workin

WASHINGTON, March 3, 2009 – Revamping the nation’s energy grid for the 21st Century could increase demand for a nationwide broadband network, said industry experts and regulators.

But at a Tuesday hearing by the Senate Committee on Energy and National Resources, a group of experts from government, standards-setting bodies and industry told senators that all stakeholders must first do a better job of working together to digitize electricity transmission and delivery systems.

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act mandated creation of a Department of Energy-run Smart Grid Task Force to advance solutions for a modern energy grid. The Act also authorized a grant program for demonstration projects and investment in new infrastructure. And the economic stimulus legislation passed last month funded those grant programs.

But questions remain over the effectiveness and structure of the programs, said Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. Bingaman said he called the hearing so government and industry witnesses could testify “on how well the funding for the grant program is being administered,” and encouraged all witnesses to “let us know whether or not we have gotten it right…and as to whether or not there is something else we need to do in legislation.”

Ranking member Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, worried that Americans aren’t on the same page with this new technology. “Are we talking about the same thing?” she asked. She explained: “Some appear to confuse the idea of making our electrical grid ‘smarter’ with making it ‘bigger,’” Murkowski cautioned Americans to remember that the smart grid is “a potential tranformation in how we use and deliver electricity.”

But challenges for the grid remain, she said, citing the lack of an interoperability framework, no standard for cybersecurity, possible obsolescence and worries about public acceptance of the grid’s cost. And Murkowski was concerned about how the $4.5 billion in stimulus grants will be distributed in the absence of a standard for interoperability. She asked: “[D]o we risk making investments in technology that may soon be obsolete?”

Developing the framework will be “a challenging task,” said Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Suedeen Kelly. FERC is working with the Energy Department, the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security as part of the Smart Grid Task Force required by the 2007 Act. And the task force is also working with state regulators to develop interoperability standards, she said.

Those standards must be built in from the start and not added later, Kelly warned. But while FERC will promulgate standards once NIST has approved them, Kelly reminded the senators that FERC does not have authority to compel adherence to the standards beyond the scope of the Federal Power Act. True national enforcement of standards by the commission would have to be authorized by statute, she said.

NIST is “well suited and ready” to coordinate development of standards through “collaborative efforts with all stakeholders,” deputy director Patrick Gallhager told the committee. But achieving interoperability will require “reliable standards and validated performance,” he added.

The grid will probably make use of “suites” of standards, rather than just one, Gallhager said. Any interoperability framework that NIST develops will have the flexibility to evolve with technology, he added.

And the framework will be developed in an “open and transparent process” that will let companies have confidence to “buy in” to the system, he said. But standards do not mean interoperability, he noted. Testing is necessary to make sure any system actually works, he said.

Developing standards and administering the grant program are the Energy Department’s “highest priorities,” said Patricia Hoffman, acting assistant secretary for energy delivery and reliability. The department has already released one of two Notices of Intent regarding the grant program, and will soon release the second, followed by a formal request for proposals.

The NOIs will give guidance to potential grantees on how their applications will be evaluated, she said. Both notices will be issued within the 60 day period required by the stimulus bill, she added.

But the standards process is not working, said National Electrical Manufacturers CEO Evan Gaddis. Gaddis called for a “common alphabet” of uniform time stamps, location codes, commands, and measurements, before any common language could be created. And Gaddis warned that utilities have yet to even agree on a standard to record current and voltage – the “fundamental measurements of electrical power.”

Congress should direct an accredited standards organization to accelerate development of the “alphabet” in a “consensus-based process,” Gaddis said. NIST can and should “bless” the effort, he said. But “industry is ready now.”

The smart grid should use open standards and application programming interfaces to drive competition while empowering both industry and consumers, said Google advanced projects program manger Edward Lu.

Google believes consumers should have access to real-time data on their electricity consumption, Lu said. He compared energy use today to going grocery shopping in a store with no posted prices. “Personal energy information belongs to consumers,” he said, “and they should control who have access to it.”

Open protocols and standards would let consumers share data “in a format that is standardized, freely published, and unencumbered by a patent or proprietary claim,” he said. Google has been testing such a system called PowerMeter among its employees, and is building partnerships with utilities and device manufacturers for a public test, he said.

And while Lu admitted there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to providing consumers with information, he said Google looks forward to collaborating with all stakeholders to enable more consumer control over energy usage.

But Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., worried that a standard could become obsolete if not implemented before grant money is distributed. Kelly responded that an open technology would be unlikely to become obsolete. “We don’t have to wait for standards,” Kelly said, “but open architecture is very important.”

And the energy department is working with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to develop a “clearinghouse” of web-based information on costs, architecture and other information to allow more participation by stakeholders, Kelly added.

The open architecture will consist of many application programming interfaces, Gallagher told Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell worried that TCP/IP architecture may not be appropriate for some applications. “We need to keep our eyes on that,” she said. But Murkowski later said in an interview that the “bottom line…is how to get the information to the consumer.”

California Public Utility Commissioner Rachelle Chong, who represents NARUC on the Smart Grid Task Force, said that TCP/IP over broadband was especially appropriate for such consumer-oriented “home area network” applications. It would be “very positive” to have information on publically available sites in real time, she said.

Despite NIST’s standards push, Chong said many utility companies, including two in California, are already working to form voluntary, technology-neutral standards. She compared the group to the communications and electronics companies that came together to develop devices that operate in the so-called “shite spaces,” or vacant television channels. “Open is the best way to go,” she said.

Utility companies, Chong said, view communications as important to developing a smart grid. And the telecommunications providers that maintain fast internet protocolnetworks are beginning to grasp the idea of utilities as customers, she said.

Still, most utilities – even those within the same state – don’t have standardized measurements or times, she said. But California’s Public Utility Commission has a rulemaking open on the issue, added Chong, who was also a member of the FCC in the 1990s.

Chong admitted that “we’re at the very beginning” of building the grid, but said an IP/broadband based Smart Grid would make sense for consumers while presenting new business opportunities for telecommunications companies.

And while Chong was excited to see the convergence of power and telecommunications technology – an “exciting crossover” between the different stages of her career, Chong’s enthusiasm was grounded not in her personal satisfaction, but a firm belief that the smart grid will lead to better experiences for consumers and a more positive future for the environment.

Broadband Breakfast Club

March Meeting: Broadband Competition: Do We Have It, and How Do We Get More of It? presents the March meeting of the Broadband Breakfast Club at Old Ebbitt Grill on Tuesday, March 10, 2009, at 8 a.m. Because of the Commerce Department/Agriculture Department/FCC Public Meeting on broadband stimulus from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., the Broadband Breakfast Club will adjourn at 9:30 a.m.

  • NEW! – James Baller, President of Baller Herbst Law Group, will provide a brief summary of the progress of the U.S. Broadband Coalition
  • Art Brodsky, Communication Director, Public Knowledge
  • Kathleen Ham, Vice President, Federal Regulatory, T-Mobile USA
  • Brent Olson, Assistant Vice President, Public Policy, AT&T
  • Emmett O’Keefe, Director, Federal Public Policy,
  • Scott Wallsten, Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow, Technology Policy Institute

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