November 21, 2011 By Wayne Hanson
Last month Digital Communities published an article on SCADA hacking — a seemingly arcane but important subject closely related to the reliability of power and other essential utilities. And then, in an eerie coincidence, on Nov. 8, a hacker apparently shut down a pump at an Illinois water supply station. The U.S. Homeland Security Department and the FBI are investigating, according to Monday’s Chicago Tribune.
As the systems that control power, water, sewage, gas and other utilities are updated, most are looking to smarter systems and the so-called “smart grid.” In two examples of many, Tallahassee, Fla., and Austin, Texas are well under way in smart-grid rollout. Larry Karisny, an expert on the smart grid and author of the aforementioned Digital Communities article on smart-grid security, wrote: “Keeping the power grid dumb is really not an option in securing today’s power grid.” So the issue is that the theoretical apparently has become reality. Does on the hack attack on the Illinois water system change the game plan for smart-grid rollout? Do the benefits of smart-grid deployment outweigh any perceived or actual vulnerabilities?
At a recent session at the National League of Cities conference in Phoenix, a number of presenters envisioned the smart grid and its benefits.
Cadmus Group’s Mark Lesiw said the grid is somewhat misunderstood and does more than just bring electricity to homes and offices. It manages the supply and demand of electricity, ensures power quality and voltage, and maintains power reliability. “You only really notice it when it goes out,” he said. But the existing grid has its limitations, imposed by one-way and top-down communication from big power plants to users. If there are lots of power inputs to the system, said Lesiw, it’s hard to balance the inputs to the system with the outputs of electricity flow. And the bills we get don’t show us how much power we used yesterday, at night, and so forth. And the grid — by necessity — is engineered to meet peak demand, even if that peak demand occurs only two or three days per year.
The smart grid improves communication, Lesiw said, and is really the Internet brought to the electrical system. The smart grid brings that communication network to the existing grid, allowing a multitude of energy-consuming and energy-producing devices to talk to one another. That becomes more important as inputs include solar panels, wind turbines and other distributed generation facilities. In addition, electric vehicles may draw increasing amounts of current, especially at night, and the smart grid allows a varying rate structure — lower at off-peak times, for example — as another lever to encourage better load balancing.
Mayor John Marks of Tallahassee, Fla., a self-described “recovering utility regulator” said his 30 years as an attorney focused on utilities led to his interest in the smart grid. Tallahassee has electricity and gas on a smart-grid system, with water next. If you put a digital meter inside the house, said Marks, people can have more control over their consumption. The city’s smart-grid system has been in place for nearly two years now, said Marks. “It’s a fully integrated smart grid. It not only supports my electric utility, it supports my gas utility and my water utility — all three.” Marks said he believes