Safeguarding Our Electrical Grid


Popular Science (28 January 2013) has an interesting article on “How To Save The Electrical Grid.”

Power use has skyrocketed with home appliances, TVs, and computers, causing a significant increase in demand and “pushing electricity through lines that were never intended to handle such high loads.”

Our electrical infrastructure is aging with transformers “now more than 40 years old on average and 70% of transmission lines are at least 25 years old” while at the same time over the last three decades average U.S. household power consumption has tripled!

The result is that the U.S. experiences over 100 mass outages a year to our electrical systems from storms, tornados, wildfires and other disasters.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “cost estimates from storm-related outages to the U.S. economy at between $20 billion and $55 billion annually.”

For example, in Hurricane Sandy 8 millions homes in 21 states lost power, and in Hurricane Irene, a year earlier, 5.5 million homes lost electricity.

The solution is to modernize our electrical grid:

– Replace a linear electrical design with a loop design, so a failure can be rerouted. (Isn’t this basic network architecture where a line network is doomed by a single point of failure, while a ring or mesh topology can handle interruptions at any given point?)

– Install “fault-current limiters” as shock absorbers so when there is a surge in the grid, we can “absorb excess current and send a regulated amount down the line” rather than causing circuit breakers to open and stop the flow of electrical power altogether.

– Create backup power generation for critical infrastructure such as hospitals, fire stations, police, and so on, so that critical services are not interrupted by problems on the larger grid. This can be expanded to installing solar and other renewable energy resources on homes, buildings, etc.

– Replace outdated electrical grid components and install a smart grid and smart meters to “digitally monitor and communicate home power” and automatically adjust power consumption at the location and device level. Smart technology can help manage the load on the grid and shift non-essential use to off-hour use. The estimated cost for modernizing the U.S. grid is $673 billion–but the cost of a single major outages can run into the ten of billions alone. What will it take for this investment to become a national priority?

I would add an additional solution for safeguarding our electrical grid by beefing up all elements of cyber security from intrusion detection and prevention to grid protection, response, and recovery capabilities. Our electrical system is a tempting target for cyber criminal, terrorists or hostile nation states that would seek to deprive us of our ability to power our economy, defense, and political establishments.

While energy independence has become feasible by 2020, we need to make sure that we not only have enough energy resources available, but also the means for reliable and secure energy generation and distribution to every American family and business. 😉

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)

>City 2.0 Makes City Sense


They call it City 2.0—that is cities that are IT enabled with all sorts of sensors and smart technology.

  • Cameras monitor traffic flow.
  • Sensors test water quality and monitor sewage runoff.
  • Smart meters keep track of energy usage.
  • Acoustical systems monitor structural integrity of bridges and other infrastructure.
  • Building management systems control ventilation, lighting, power, fire, and security.
  • Environmental monitoring tracks weather, smog, and even potential natural disasters.

And I think this is all probably still just the beginning…

Governing Magazine, April 2010 has an article entitled “The Sentient City” by Zach Patton” that describes how systems are helping cities “send resources to the street corner where gangs are converging, manage traffic before it becomes congested, and respond to emergencies seamlessly—automatically—before they’re even reported.”

With technology, we are able to be not only more aware of our surroundings, but also be more proactive in managing them.

There are many critical technology elements that come into play for a sentient city:

  • Sensors—for awareness of what is going on
  • Networking—for linking together the sensors with the backend systems
  • Storage—for housing all the incoming city data
  • Business Intelligence—for making sense of it all
  • Alerting—for notifying authorities and citizens of important happenings

According to analyst Rob Enderle, with technologies for a sentient city, “you can run a city cheaper and have happier and safer citizens.” Further, according to the article, the city “becomes a more efficient place for people to live and work. It also means a government can do more with less.”

Obviously, there is significant investment that needs to be made in city infrastructure, systems, and people to make this next generation of city living a complete reality.

But with the investment will come rewards of more and better information for managing all the people, places, and things interacting with each other in the environs.

The flip side of a sentient city is a certain degree of risk to people’s privacy. For example, where cameras and other sensors abound, people’s comings, goings, and doings could become subject to invasive scrutiny.

In this case, a little information can become a dangerous thing without adequate safeguards as to what can be monitored, when, and with how much personally identifiable information. For example, this issue is currently being dealt with at airports full body technology scanners that are programmed to hide a person’s facial identity.

The benefits of sensing and monitoring our environment are great in terms of efficiencies, safety, and security of our citizens, and I believe that this capability will grow from discrete sensing systems into more holistic city management systems that monitors all the city’s functions and operations, feeds this information into dynamic knowledge centers, and provides real-time information for managing day-to-day city living more intelligently and proactively.

As our population grows and our major city centers continue to have to deal with the ever greater potential for overcrowding, traffic, dirt, crime, and other facets of close knit metropolitan life, our need for more and better information for managing these will become ever more critical to support the continued livability and likability of our cities that we call home.

>The Microgrid Versus The Cloud


It’s strange how the older you get, the more you come to realize that life is not black and white. However, when it comes to technology, I once held out hope that the way to the future was clear.

Then things started to get all gray again.

First, I read a few a few weeks ago about the trends with wired and wireless technologies. On one hand, phones have been going from wired to wireless (many are even giving up their landlines all together). Yet on the other hand, television has been going the other way—from wireless (antennas) to wired (cable).

Okay, I thought this was an aberration; generally speaking technology advances—maybe with some thrashing about—but altogether in a specific direction that we can get clearly define and get our arms around.

Well, then I read another article—this one in Fast Company, July/August 2009, about the micogrid. Here’s what this is all about:

“The microgrid is simple. Imagine you could go to Home Depot and pick out a wind or solar appliance that’s as easy to install as a washer/dryer. It makes all the electricity your home needs and pays for itself in just a few years. Your home still connects to the existing wires and power plants, but is a two-way connection. You’re just as likely to be uploading power to the grid as downloading from it. You power supply communicates with the rest of the system via a two-way digital smart meter, and you can view your energy use and generation in real time.”

Is this fantasy or reality for our energy markets?

Reality. “From the perspective of both our venture capital group and some senior people within GE Energy, distributed generation is going to happen in a big way.” IBM researchers agree—“IBM’s vision is achieving true distributed energy on a massive scale.”

And indeed we see this beginning to happen in the energy industry with our own eyes as “going green” environmentalism, and alternate energy has become important to all of us.

The result is that in the energy markets, let’s summarize, we are going from centralized power generation to a distributed model. Yet—there is another trend in the works on the information technology side of the house and that is—in cloud computing, where we are moving from distributed applications, platforms, storage, and so forth (in each organization) to a more centralized model where these are provisioned by service providers such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and IBM—to name a just a few. So in the energy markets, we will often be pushing energy back to the grid, while in information technology, we will be receiving metered services from the cloud.

The takeaway for me is that progress can be defined in many technological ways at one time. It’s not black or white. It’s not wired or wireless. It’s not distributed or centralized services. Rather, it’s whatever meets the needs of the particular problem at hand. Each must be analyzed on its own merits and solved accordingly.