Friday, August 21, 2009

Where the smart grid meets the Internet

The term "smart grid" means many things to many people. At the most basic level, the smart grid is defining smarter ways to deliver and use energy -- but did you know that the smart grid is also defining new ways to generate and exchange energy information?

Building information technology into the electricity grid will revolutionize the way our homes and businesses use energy. The first step will be to develop open protocols and standards to allow smart grid devices and systems to communicate with one another. That's why Google and other stakeholders are participating in a working group coordinated by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop interoperability standards for a nationwide smart grid.

When people talk about networks for exchanging information -- particularly among millions of end users -- the first thing that often comes to mind is the Internet. So it makes sense to take the successful processes used to create Internet standards and apply them to this new energy information network.

Google, for example, believes in the wisdom of crowds (we've used that wisdom to enhance our products and we continue to get feedback on future products via Google Labs and Google Code Labs). And we've found that a good way to harness the wisdom of crowds is to create open standards to solve network issues. Some of the key principles to developing truly open standards include open and free access to:
  • Process. The customers of the smart grid information network are energy producers and consumers, hardware and software developers and energy regulators. Collaborate, and make sure all parties are represented during the standards discussion.
  • Drafts. There are a lot of people with networking expertise who are not directly involved with smart grid; make it easy for them to participate, for example, by hosting meetings online and posting documents that are universally accessible for review.
  • Comments. Allow comments resulting from current standards drafts to influence future drafts.
  • Final standards. If people can't access the standard, they can't implement the standard!
  • Standards unencumbered by patents. If implementers need to worry about licenses to practice the standard, it is not really a completely open standard.
The smart grid is essentially a nascent energy Internet. Thanks to the open protocols and standards on which it was built, the Internet has grown into a thriving ecosystem, delivering innovative products and services to billions of users worldwide. Applying the same principles of openness to the development of standards for our nation's electric grid would create a smarter platform for products and services, helping consumers conserve energy and save money.


James Butler said...

Awesome! Little servers in every meter; pushing out bits at regular intervals; aggregated at the distribution centers and tied to delivery systems so they can allocate output where it is most needed, or so they can regulate it where it is being abused; and linked to producers and market indexes (although the dream of public-sector resources makes this moot) to inform pricing and quota management ... all open source, open protocol and open mind. Of course, the "wisdom of the crowds" insists that Jerry Springer be in charge of all of that, but what the heck. We gotta start somewhere!

Jake Brodsky said...

"The smart grid is essentially a nascent energy Internet."

I'd much rather that it were not. Think of all the maladies the Internet has: traffic storms, malware, worms, and the like. Now imagine that in your electric grid controls.

The Internet may seem reliable to most people, but the energy grid needs to be even more reliable. Outages aren't just a nuisance; they can make cities uninhabitable in a matter of hours.

We need to be extra careful which technologies we use. Just because it has worked in the IT realm for five, ten, or even 15 years is no guarantee of suitability for a public utility.

This is high voltage stuff folks (literally). Tread with care.

Jake Brodsky

Billy Ray said...

I agree completely. The internet protocols have plenty enough redundancy to provide drastic improvements in the way we operate the grid. Even if we experience some failures, each and every command/control success will be one that we do not enjoy today. For the most part, our electric grid is completely controlled by a consortium of cheap thermostats located in walls and water heaters and buried within each appliance in millions of homes. It is high time we wrestled control of our power grid away from these stupid devices and use IP to shape our demand to match our resources. I call this "infotricity." You can read more about this concept at

vint said...


I don't advocate using the public Internet for the smart grid but the idea of standardizing protocols is to allow many appliances and service providers to interwork - allowing for a lot of competitive offerings. The Internet protocols may prove useful for the grid controls but even if they are, I would expect this energy management network to be segregated. There is an very tricky problem associated with appliances that are both on the power grid and on the public Internet (e.g. so you can program your entertainment systems from the public Internet). We need strong firewalls to prevent crossover from the public Internet into the power grid control systems.

vint cerf

Rahul Jain said...

I think protocols like TCP will be almost useless for the energy grid anyway. I'd figure datagrams will be more useful, both unicast and multicast. Some will need to be reliable, some are discardable.

As far as addressing goes, I think something like IPv6 might be ok, but I'm not so sure. I think mostly we are going to need a nice hierarchy of multicast addresses. Maybe bits that indicate the approx. power consumption of the device, the type of device (heating vs entertainment vs cooling vs lighting)... things that can be subscribed to or triggered by various monitoring programs that are interested in specific types of events or situations. E.g., when you are coming back home, start up the cooling and heating devices, but not lighting until you actually get home.

Bill said...

Would that crowds were as wise as Vint Cerf. NIST would be well-served to remember the openness with which Internet standards were and continue to be developed as they approach smart grid standardization.