Smart Grid – Promises and Pitfalls for IT

There may be much ado about smart grids these days but the upshot is there’s a lot left to do. Certainly the federal government is backing the effort whole-hog and major players of the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) and Verizon-ilk are burning the midnight oil to bring home that bacon.

That’s not to say that the idea is just another government pork-deal, however, because the need is real. Current grids are fizzling rather than sizzling over ancient infrastructure. The country can choose to replace the grids before they blow or replace them in the dark. The problem is inescapable: something has to be done to accommodate growing energy demands and five-nines promises on a 24/7 schedule.

Given political will and practical need are firmly behind the smart grid effort, the thing will crackle from drawing board to live wire in the very near future. The only question left, really, is whether it will power a monster of a problem or a field of dreams for IT? The answer it turns out is a little of both. How much of each is not quite certain as the smart grid concept is still under development. For example, the UTC and Verizon are just now studying what to plug in where to make a smart grid truly smart.

“We plan to release the results in September,” said Debbie Lewis, a Verizon spokesperson. Most of the other players are roughly at the same starting point so you can expect collaboration between utilities and telcoms to continue and further muddy the identity of future IT equipment and services.

“To provide a seamless system, the market is witnessing convergence between IT/telecom and power equipment,” said Farah Saeed, senior consultant on Energy and Power Systems at Frost & Sullivan.

Examples of converged change you can expect to see soon: fewer cables in the data center if your IP comes in over the power lines and an electrical account that can follow mobile workers anywhere (for everything from electrical car refueling to connectivity for mobile devices — bye bye multiple hot spot accounts, hello confusion over who used what watts).

Based on current smart grid proposals, there are a number of other pros and cons IT should be preparing for now. A lack of standardization can make adoption tricky. “A utility can choose between deploying a private network, RF based, MESH etc.,” explains Saeed. “Furthermore, at the customer level the utility can choose to select Zigbee, WiFi, WiMax etc.” Be prepared to ask detailed questions about future smart grid products and services and make sure they fit with your current and future plans.

The data center may move from cost center to revenue stream since the smart grid enables energy sell-backs. That means any consumer or business that produces energy can sell it back to the grid. The data center produces heat and heat is energy. Theoretically, you can harvest that energy and sell it back to the grid to offset costs or to produce an additional revenue stream for your company. It is a good idea to proactively look for technologies that will help you do this. While realistically energy sell-backs won’t make your company rich, they may help stretch your IT budget and/or improve the mood of other c-suite executives.

“I wouldn’t say that this will directly reduce the cost of energy [on the utility end],” said Terry Burns, executive consultant in energy and utilities at Teradata Corp. “However, it will encourage more efficient use of infrastructure and resources.”

Security issues will remain a top priority, as always. Not that anyone in IT ever thought security issues would go away, but a smart grid does little to make the situation any safer. Indeed, it brings a whole slew of new worries with it. “Without robust security, the power grid could be brought down by hackers that use the smart grid to turn on all high-load appliances remotely at the same time,” explains John Allen, senior manager of Marketing Power Lines Communications at Atheros Communications.

At least when you can’t sleep at night worrying about security issues, the smart grid will keep the nightlight on for you and automatically switch which TV is on as you pace throughout the house.

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker’s published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. Baker is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).