Grid modernization, wireless telecom intimately tied

IEEE's Sam Sciacca

In this interview with FierceSmartGrid Editor Barbara Vergetis Lundin, Sam Sciacca discusses how developments in grid modernization and wireless telecom networks have created new opportunities for both sectors. He also talks about how cyber security needs have affected power utilities.

Sam Sciacca is a Senior Member of IEEE and current chair of two IEEE working groups dealing with cyber security for electric utilities: the Substations Working Group C1, which is working on P1686; and the Power System Relaying Committee Working Group H13, which is working on PC37.240. Sciacca is CEO of SCS Consulting.

Sam Sciacca

FierceSmartGrid: You've written recently that developments in grid modernization and public networks have created new opportunities for both sectors to work together. Would you extrapolate?   

Sam Sciacca: Smarter grids are driving exponential growth in data traffic, some of which is appropriate for transmitting over wireless public networks. The utilities' in-house communications capabilities cannot keep pace with the explosion of data traffic from all parts of the grid – smart meters on homes and businesses, intelligent electronic devices (IED) on feeders, in substations, protective relaying gear -- and they need networks outside their capital expenditure means and, in some ways, outside their expertise.

Applications such as protective relaying and SCADA still require service parameters such as deterministic throughput, priority and speed for operational safety-related data that will continue to ride on the utilities' proprietary networks. But there are numerous smart grid applications that don't require that time-critical reliability.

For example, the collection of smart meter data, in general, is not a mission-critical function. Remote access to substation IEDs for the implementation of software upgrades, to retrieve diagnostic data on asset conditions and so forth does not require high degrees of speed and reliability. The same goes for receiving data back on the penetration of a demand response event or maintaining awareness of interconnections to small-scale distributed resources and electric vehicle charging stations.

Meanwhile, the telcos' networks have improved in terms of speed, bandwidth, reliability, security – you name it. And that now positions the two sectors, which historically have not collaborated for a variety of reasons, to work together to mutual benefit. 

FSG: Would you explain further how public networks have evolved to meet the demands of certain smart grid functions?

SS: Telcos have made available pervasive IP-based networks with improved reliability, speed, bandwidth, and security to nearly all the homes and businesses in the United States. The drivers were telecommunications, entertainment and e-commerce. Those networks are now in place and didn't require utilities' capital investment.  

Yet those networks have certain qualities that create the reliability, for example, that utilities require. An IP-based network, by definition, doesn't rely on a single path, but uses a diversity of paths, creating robustness. A signal will get through, even if part of the network is interrupted or damaged. That goes a long way to assuage utility concerns over the reliability of, say, control signals.

The return of DC power will have widespread impacts.

As utilities pursue advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and distribution automation (DA) for both their operational efficiencies and their contributions to reliability indices reported to regulators, they can now turn to IP-based, third-party networks for that data traffic without investing enormous capital, in terms of dollars and brainpower. The problem's been solved in a cost-effective manner and those public networks now are available at costs that improve the business plan, the return on investment, for AMI and DA. 

FSG: Let's talk about cyber security. Is there an under-appreciated aspect of cyber security for smart grid that needs greater attention?

SS: That's a deep subject with many ramifications. If I had to pick one issue right now, I'd say that recent, increased attacks on industrial meters have brought attention to that challenge. In other words, unscrupulous people are hacking industrial meters for profit. One of the gaps in defense is that vendors must specify the cyber security features of the IEDs they sell, but they do so inconsistently, making it difficult for a utility to assess the weaknesses of those IEDs.

Fortunately, the IEEE Power and Energy Society's Substations Committee has created IEEE 1686, Standard for Substation Intelligent Electronic Devices (IED) Cyber Security Capabilities, which articulates a method for the specification and evaluation of legacy and new IEDs. The evaluation process is important because it can save money -- not all legacy IEDs need to be replaced. And understanding the features and functions of new IEDs enables utility engineers to ensure the new devices will fit into an organization's cyber security scheme.

IEEE 1686 really spells it out. For instance, the equipment supplier must document that the device has no "backdoors." Hackers, unfortunately, are sometimes simply those with an opportunity, and that can mean insiders with intimate knowledge of a product's vulnerabilities.

That's a good example where a vulnerability has been addressed through standards.

FSG: Physical security and cyber security are often intertwined. How do you see the threats and the solutions?

SS: High fences and locked doors used to provide protection for both the public and the electric utility. The utility could discourage anyone from entering with malicious intent and, not incidentally, protect a casual intruder from a dangerous encounter with high voltage equipment. But the price of certain metals such as copper and steel that are typically used in substations, for instance, has driven would-be thieves to target some of the grid's most critical and expensive infrastructure. The theft of a copper grounding wire, for example, would leave a substation vulnerable to expensive, dangerous damage from a lightning strike, as well as jeopardize the safety of substation workers.

The old notion of "security through obscurity" no longer holds, as an out-of-the-way location for a substation can also provide cover for misdeeds.

The solution lies in more sophisticated designs. High fences and locked doors may require greater robustness, as well as integration with monitoring and access control such as closed-circuit video, intrusion detection capabilities and tampering alarms. Due to these increased threats, IEEE Standard P1402, Physical Security of Electric Power Substation, is currently under revision as it's upgraded from a Guideline to a Standard.

In fact, physical and cyber security have converged, so it's no surprise that standards for physical security are referenced in standards for cyber security and vice versa.

FSG: You've mentioned the role of standards several times and you're currently involved with two working committees on cyber security for substations and power system relaying equipment. Setting standards is an arduous, time-consuming and critical process for grid modernization. How would you describe the benefits of such work?

SS: The benefits are immense, and they are twofold. The first is personal, professional and career growth for the individual engineer. Working on standards exposes one to the bigger world of professional peers and a more detailed understanding of issues and solutions. The networking with colleagues offers great value in learning new skills and industry best practices. Those skills include working on a process governed by deliberate steps and consensus. That's valuable to the individual as well as the utility or company they represent.

Second, organizations that send employees to work on standards benefit from that individual's professional development, but also from the bird's eye view of how a standard and resulting products and processes is evolving. Understanding the direction of the industry's technical solutions enables a company to keep up with the market. Companies who participate also have the opportunity to influence standards and become closely identified with resulting solutions. Of course, companies, like individuals, gain from the networking, which can foster business development.

FSG: Looking ahead, would you identify one technology on the horizon and tell us why it will be important to grid modernization in the relatively near future?

SS: The advent, or should I say, the return of DC power will have widespread impacts.

I'll mention two areas that interest me. Solar photovoltaic panels produce DC energy and a wind turbine can be more efficient and less capital intensive if its output is in DC power. As much as 15 percent of the energy produced is lost when we convert DC to AC for transmission and distribution, then convert AC to DC for many applications, including electronics, electric drives, computing, lighting and so forth -- DC-AC-DC conversions.

Avoiding that loss of efficiency by tying power sources such as PV with DC output directly to DC-consuming loads would bring solar energy up to parity with fossil fuel sources. That's a disruptive force with big economic implications. In the wind turbine example, a high capital cost and maintenance cost is created by the complex transmission required to generate AC power. Outputting DC power would simplify the mechanism, make it less expensive and easier to maintain.

In another example, a DC transformer or energy router can transform power to different voltages of DC or perform DC-to-AC conversions in an efficient manner through the use of power electronics, rather than the copper and steel magnetism technology we use today. These devices are under development and they are likely to be lighter, smaller and less expensive than their current-day counterparts. Pre-standardization activity, under the sponsorship of the IEEE-SA Industry Connections Committee, is advancing this concept to speed up the development of standards for these new products.

Selective use of DC power will open all kinds of possibilities.