What Would Happen if we had a Smart Grid Today?

A smart grid is an electrical grid that makes us of digital technology and advanced software to rapidly and efficiently manage the supply and demand of energy. What would the world look like if we had a smart grid today? Read on for answers to that question from experts in the fields of energy and cybersecurity. For a complete explanation of the terms “smart grid” and “cybersecurity”, read this article.

If we had a smart grid today…

“The national unemployment rate might be 0%,”
jokes Mike Reiter, a researcher of information technology security at UNC Chapel Hill. “Well, maybe not, but for computer scientists, it would definitely be very low.”

Reiter says that there would be a very high demand for not just software developers, but also software testers. He says testing the security of the smart grid would be a near endless job and that companies would be hiring as many testers as they could afford.

“When you have information as valuable as that found in a smart grid, we cannot afford to take chances,” says Reiter. “Every line of code in the system must be meticulously tested and inspected to insure good security.”

Reiter says that basic software testing can be done by non-computer scientists as well. He says that with the right training, even people without college degrees might be able to land jobs in software testing if the demand becomes high enough.

If we had a smart grid today…

“That might be a bit of a problem,” says Cynthia Sturton, a computer scientist at UNC Chapel Hill. “Because if we apply the computer security practices of today to the smart grid, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Sturton says that common security practices such as using a username and password to grant access to information have been a “weak link” in computer security for some time now. She says if we use security like that in the smart grid, we can expect to have power outages often.

“Using usernames and passwords for protection is something we have done for a very long time now and so it will be hard to replace,” says Sturton. “But if we don’t, systems like the smart grid may never become a reality.“

Sturton says that hacking into a system that has a username and password as the only security measure is almost too easy most of the time. She says that successful cyber attacks on large software companies in recent years have proven that our security standards need to be raised before a smart grid like system is possible.

If we had a smart grid today…

“It actually may not be that smart at all,” says Montek Singh, a hardware security researcher at UNC Chapel Hill. “Companies understand the limitations of computer security so they would likely be very conservative in their implementation of a smart grid.”

Singh says that the people who would manage the smart grid would play it safe and that they would likely start out with very simple features. Things like providing the consumer with a more advanced report of his energy use per month or malfunction detection in electricity meters.

“If we had one today, it would not be a full-fledged one,” says Singh. “Security issues must be carefully considered and having a completely smart grid would be very risky from that point of view.”

He says that the internet is a very dangerous place and that without more development in software and computer security, it would be wise to keep a smart grid dumb for the time being.

“People have their accounts on the internet hacked every day,” says Singh. “Can we really afford to have that happen with a smart grid?”

If we had a smart grid today…

“We would likely have many security issues,” says Stan Ahalt, a researcher of cybersecurity at UNC Chapel Hill. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. The benefits that come from having an insecure smart grid would far outweigh the costs.”

Ahalt says that we cannot be afraid to take the risk of trying to implement a smart grid. He believes that we are desperately in need of a revolution and that being conservative will likely get us nowhere.

“Just because something is risky and just because something can lead to complications does not mean that it is not the right thing to do,” says Ahalt. “There will be costly breaches in security in the beginning but we will learn from those breaches and keep improving.”

Ahalt says that such risks are needed to have large advancements in the way we do things.

“For example, everyone knew that the installation of cell phone towers for larger coverage and better Internet access would lead to complications,” says Ahalt. “But how much does that matter now? Because of those network towers, we are capable of having the Internet in our hands.”

If we had a smart grid today…

“Things would be much better,” says Kyle Bradbury, managing director at Duke Energy Initiative were he creates models to help integrate renewables to the grid. “All aspects of energy from the perspective of the consumers and the perspective of the suppliers would be made better.”

Bradbury says that having a smart grid today would mean that we would have the infrastructure to allow for easy integration of various renewables into the grid. He says our grid would be more efficient and much cleaner.

“A smart grid is what we need for the modern world,” says Bradbury. “So having one today would be absolutely great.”