by Alex Kingsbury

Key to 'smart,' secure electricity of the future may be educating consumers

Several years ago, the National Academy of Engineering set about ranking the 20th century's greatest technological achievements. A group of scientists and engineers, led by the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, weighed in and came to a startling conclusion: The greatest achievement wasn't the Apollo program, the automobile, or the splitting of the atom. It was the electrical grid.

But while it may have been a technical wonder at the time of construction, the nation's power grid has become dangerously antiquated over the past few decades. If technology in the home is racing ahead at broadband speed, the power grid is stuck back in the days of rotary-dial phones. According to industry statistics, the dog food industry spends more on research and development than the electrical sector does. Aging technology means more frequent blackouts, a greater vulnerability to computer hackers, and, perhaps most insidious, colossal inefficiency. As part of the economic stimulus package, the Obama administration has pledged $3.4 billion toward "smart grid" technology -- the next generation of infrastructure, meant to stabilize the grid in the event of a failure, incorporate green technology, and vastly improve efficiency. But those billions are a drop in the bucket toward bringing the entire national grid into the 21st century, which could take decades and cost upwards of $100 billion, some experts estimate.

Better bulbs. There are several basic components of a smart grid. Two-way movement of power is critical. Conventionally, power plants simply send electricity to homes. In a smart system, homes equipped with solar panels or wind turbines would be able to push power into the grid as well. Such a system also would be more stable and able to repair itself in the event of a blackout or other disruption. "In the more distant future, smart power grids may be able to coordinate the use of electricity in the home -- for instance, turning on an appliance like a washing machine at a time of day when there is ample power on the grid and electrical prices are low," says Massoud Amin, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who is credited with coining the phrase "smart grid."

But the most important near-term reason to smarten the grid is waste reduction. Cutting tiny inefficiencies can have dramatic effects on the entire system. Consider the case of the humble incandescent light bulb. By the time power has been generated at a plant, transported across high-tension lines, and sent to the lighting fixture, a measly 0.8 percent of the power is converted into light. More efficient light bulbs, like light-emitting diodes, could vastly alter that equation. Widely adopting LEDs in the next two decades could save $265 billion in energy costs, remove the need to build 40 new power plants, and cut the demand for lighting electricity by more than 30 percent, according to the Department of Energy.

Most Americans are completely unaware of how much power common household items like the light bulb fritter away.

So smartening the public is as critical as smartening the grid itself. Individual smart meters that replace the traditional power meters installed on homes can show consumers how much power their home is using at given times of the day and how much that power is costing. Indeed, policymakers and utilities hope that giving people the true costs of their electric appliance use will naturally change their behavior and give them an incentive to make cheaper choices.

To that end, the Internet search giant Google recently released a free product called PowerMeter that allows users to track their power usage in near real time on their computers. "The way Americans currently buy electricity is like shopping for groceries every day but not getting the bill until the end of the month," Edward Lu, a manager with Google's PowerMeter project, told a Senate hearing last spring. "When consumers can see in real time how much energy they are using, they save 5 to 15 percent on their electricity use with simple behavioral changes."

For the Google meter to work, however, consumers need to have smart meters. So far, those are available to only a limited number of consumers in Southern California, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Florida. But there are hundreds of small pilot projects nationwide that are testing the workability of various elements of the smart grid. The government estimates that as many as half the homes in the United States could have smart meters in five years.

Mischief-makers. Hooking more computers into the power grid brings with it the possibility of greater efficiency and stability, but it also creates more points of vulnerability for those seeking to make mischief. Some 80 percent of the electric utilities in the United States are privately owned, and those companies have shown little willingness to invest in cybersecurity, leaving gaping vulnerability in the system, experts note. Exposure at smaller regional power companies -- which are the least likely to have robust cybersecurity -- can, in turn, endanger the entire interconnected system.

The industry received a wake-up call after reports last April that hackers based in Russia and China were quietly reconnoitering sewage and electrical systems in the United States, raising fears that a potentially devastating cyberassault against the power system was in the offing. No damage is known to have resulted from those incidents. But in 2008, Tom Donahue, the CIA's top cybersecurity analyst, in a rare public warning, told a group of public utility leaders that hackers had broken into the systems of utilities outside the United States and, in at least one instance, caused power outages that affected multiple cities. Indeed, a study spanning 14 countries conducted by the security firm McAfee this year found that half of all power plant and utility owners said that their systems had been breached by hackers.

Even more worrying to national security experts is the compounding effect that a vulnerable power grid can have on a natural or man-made disaster. At a major cyberwar game this winter in Washington, D.C., a group of former senior government leaders, including former CIA chief John McLaughlin and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, found that responding to a hypothetical cyber- attack against the nation's mobile phone system was complicated exponentially when the power grid began to fail. In a scenario dubbed Cyber Shockwave, malicious code spread from the cellphone networks, to the Internet, to the infrastructure controlling petroleum and gas distribution, and finally to the power grid, causing rolling blackouts in major cities, grounding airline traffic, and sending the public and the financial markets into a panic. Though fictional, the scenario is entirely plausible, Chertoff said.

On the other hand, experts like Martin Libicki of the Rand Corp. contend that the increasing complexity and resilience of smart technology will actually make the system more secure -- not necessarily against intrusion, but against the damage intruders might do. The Cyber Shockwave war game came to similar conclusions, finding that a smarter grid would have been more resilient in the face of continuous cyberattacks.

Amin, father of the smart grid idea, says a better grid's benefits far outweigh potential security issues.

"Cybersecurity is most effective when it is responsive and flexible, which is exactly what the smart grid system will include," he says. Only then, he adds, will the country have a grid that continues to be worthy of its title as one of the greatest technological marvels of the age.

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National Power Grid That Thinks | Alex Kingsbury