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Smart Grid Initiatives Address Cyber Security, Renewable Energy Intermittency

Securitizing renewable energy networks from cyber-attacks is not complicated by their oft-cited operational headache of intermittency, but rather by their separation from a utility's control system, said smart grid executives at the Gridwise Global Forum in Washington, DC in early November. Though renewable intermittency adds to the challenge of stabilizing a grid, the forum revealed new evidence of real-world smart grid load shifting that continues to chip away at the tired argument that renewable energy cannot successfully integrate into a legacy grid.

“If renewables are owned by the utility, you’re probably ok, in terms of them being under the utility [security] umbrella.  If they are not part of the utility, then you could have a problem, you just don’t know,” said Ken Geisler, director of business strategy for Siemens Smart Grid Division.  “What extends the threat surface with renewables is that the utility doesn’t own it,” added Jeff Meyers, a smart grid strategy and development expert for Telvent Energy.  

With exceptions in Europe and isolated areas of the U.S., such as West Texas, the Pacific Northwest and parts of California, green energy grids don’t yet provide enough of a utility’s baseload power to be a prime target for an attack. 

But even before green grids could become a target for malefactors, the European Union is working to address potential problems in its Smart Grid Committee.  Laurent Schmitt, vice president of innovation and strategy for Paris-based Alstom’s Grid Automation & Smart Grid Solutions, is charged with defining and mapping cyber-security issues for the Committee. “Renewable nodes can be more vulnerable to the degree that the green energy grid is run by someone else.  European distribution networks are already exposed 10-20% to the intermittence of renewables…[and] what concerns the government is that…currently, renewables represent a node that, if attacked, could bring down the network.  The more renewables you have on the network, the bigger the potential impact, though it depends on the existing energy mix.”

Schmitt cited France’s EDF as a prime example of a utility whose renewable grid securitization is critical to protecting its entire electricity grid.  EDF generates 20% of its electricity from renewable sources with remaining power coming from nuclear.  “Nuclear can’t be dialed up for security reasons, so if [EDF] loses its 20%, they have a problem,” Schmitt said. 

Intermittency First, Then Security

As Edmund Schweitzer, president of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Inc., declared at the Forum’s “Guarding the Grid: Smart Grid and Grid Vulnerability” panel, in terms of security, the nut for renewables to crack remains grid stability.  “Is intermittency a cyber-security problem? No, but it is one regarding successful [grid] integration and stability and the ability to react,” he said.

Smart grid technology itself is often seen as a potential security problem because it opens utility grids to the Internet, so adding a third party-operated, variable renewable resource to a smart grid could potentially further complicate matters.  “Smart grid means more potential penetration points. The more complexity we introduce, in some senses, we’re making ourselves more vulnerable,” says Telvent’s Meyers.  In any case, say Meyers and Siemens’ Geisler, communication is critical to coordinating different types of generation to gain stability and reliability in baseload generation. 

Meyers says that means “installing some binary software or firmware, particularly to moving resources, such as turbines or fuel cells.”  Geisler adds that “the technology to do that is out there, there just isn’t anyone doing it much at this point.”  Specifically, says John Soyring, vice president of industry solutions at IBM Corp. in Austin, the industry needs “more dynamic load-shedding with a lower granularity to handle the intermittency of renewables.”

Load-shedding Could Be Key

Although utilities may not yet be doing a lot of real-time, dynamic and finely granular load management for renewable resources, they are doing more of it than ever before, particularly in areas where renewable resources make up sizable portions of the energy generation mixes.  These advances are the hallmark of a smart grid. 

Randy Berry, vice president of Kirkland, WA-based Power Systems Consultants Inc. said that Mason County Public Utility District 3 (PUD3), in a Bonneville Power Administration project, is testing GridMobility technology on about 100 residential water heaters in a smart grid project designed to manage the fluctuations of wind energy generation.

With GridMobility technology, PUD3 monitors water heater usage on the grid for the participating homes.  During heavy periods, they can shut down the water heater. Then during light times when wind energy is coming in, they turn it on. They use a formula that ensures the water heater never gets too little power to keep the water hot. If that happens, the consumer can flip a switch to override the system.  Allowing the utility to control the heater reduces its need to rely on hydropower to balance its load, providing more flexibility to use wind power.

The project began last fall and so far has been a success. Berry says that PUD3 has found that choreographing the duty cycle of water heaters created a 30% increase in efficiency, a 90% reduction in the peak energy used for water heating and a 78% increase in renewable energy used to heat water.

Austin Energy did some similar dynamic load shedding last summer, said Soyring, but at the level of one of the city’s approximately 30 sections of several thousand homes. “With more granularity, you can, for example, shut down the AC in a home for 15 minutes, which would have no real impact on the climate, and is non-invasive,” he said, noting that Austin Energy customers can already buy a thermostat that will do that.

 “Grids and operators are getting smarter, but we are also on the verge of consumers being able to do all of these things,” says PSC’s Berry.  “Like, why can’t I charge my iPhone only when the wind blows?”

Marsha Johnston is a DC-based freelance journalist, specializing in renewable energy, wildlife/wild space conservation and sustainable development issues. She can be found at StewardingtheWild.

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