Blog Post

How the FCC Can Lead Us to a Smart Intergrid

bobmetcalfe1After health care reform, the next big fight in Washington will be about energy. Spending on health care is now about 18 percent of gross domestic product, while energy spending is about 10 percent — both in the trillions of dollars, which used to be a lot of money.

There are several driving factors contributing to this urgency for energy reform. Speedy spending on shovel-ready energy infrastructure can help jump-start our declining economy — $43 billion of stimulus spending has been earmarked for energy. Current world energy resources, especially oil, are getting expensive, running out, and in the hands of people who want to kill us. Catastrophic global warming is accelerating because of carbon dioxide released into Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal and oil, and it’s probably already too late to save life, as we know it. President Obama’s political honeymoon will soon be over, so it’s now or never.

Hurry! That’s what I hear anyway. Perhaps that’s more urgency than energy can stand.

Energy Networking

Solving the energy dilemma may require some public awareness, lobbying, compromise, laws, regulations, subsidies, taxes and international treaties. It will surely require a lot of science, including physics, chemistry, biology, and math, engineering, certainly thermodynamics, as well as decades of time. But, if 63 years of Internet history are any guide, delivering cheap and clean energy in the coming decades will become easier the sooner we get right…the networking.

“Smart grid” is the current buzzword for energy networking. Everyone in Washington seems to be in on it, and let’s hope they get some entrepreneurs involved. About $4.5 billion in energy stimulus spending is earmarked for developing the smart grid. This now generally means adding intelligence — computers, software, sensors, controllers, databases, data networking — to our national electricity network of wires, towers, transformers, poles, and meters, making them smart.

The current “dumb grid” is running out of capacity, fragile, vulnerable, in the wrong places to well serve intermittent renewable energy sources, and terribly inefficient. The smart grid is the low-hanging fruit in solving energy. Hurry!

There is a federal inter-agency Smart Grid Task Force (SGTF), the members of which include the United States Department of Energy (DOE), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). SGTF is also consulting with some of the 50 state public utility commissions (PUCs). I imagine that at some point the United Nations (UN) will show up. Just in case you think these are all the acronyms you’ll have to learn in energy networking, not even close, but it’s a start.

The FCC’s Role

The good news is that another acronym, our Federal Communications Commission (FCC), chaired by Julius Genachowski, has now entered the energy-networking fray. Before, SGTF seemed to think it was the FCC’s job just to dedicate some electromagnetic spectrum through which energy utilities could send their smart grid radio communications. Genachowski, egged on by Congress, has a somewhat more expansive view of the FCC’s role in energy networking, and more power to him.

Congress has asked the FCC to deliver a national broadband plan on February 17, 2010. The plan must include smart grid broadband for energy independence and efficiency. With this deadline looming, the FCC has been busy recruiting and gathering input. It has formally asked for smart grid comments back on Oct. 2, and if you think you might want to contribute your smart grid ideas — hurry!

Remember, from Internet history, it was the FCC that in 1968 issued the Carterfone decision. The FCC opened up the AT&T monopoly telephone network to attachment of non-AT&;T devices, for example, mobile phones and later this whole Internet thing. Fierce competition among innovative entrepreneurial teams — not AT&T (s T), not IBM (s IBM), not FCC — did the rest. Let’s hope the FCC will rise to this occasion by helping get energy networking right. Let’s help it. Hurry!

For example, if the Internet is any guide, it is far from clear that the FCC should dedicate spectrum to smart grid networking. Encouraging electric utilities to communicate on their own dedicated radio frequencies could easily end up creating what we Internet people disparagingly call “silos.” Hey, the Department of Agriculture knows about silos — time to get USDA into SGTF?

Lessons from the Internet

Instead of creating network silos for electricity, there’s already a national broadband infrastructure, the Internet, so wouldn’t it be better for any smart grid(s) to use the Internet? If the Internet lacks features required by the smart grid, wouldn’t it be better to improve the Internet rather than start over with something sold by lobbyists as shovel-ready? Here’s where excessive urgency plays into the hands of the status quo. Don’t hurry.

The FCC and its friends bring to SGTF more networking expertise than we are likely to get from power plant operators or meter readers. Consider this Internet history lesson: In the 1980s, General Motors (GM) proposed its own local broadband networking alternative to my Ethernet. It argued that network customers, not network experts, know best what they need and how to build it. GM developed and promoted a non-Ethernet silo just for industrial networking — the GM Token Bus. But, as the histories of Ethernet, Token Bus (RIP), and GM have all shown, GM should have stuck to making cars.

The smart grid, like the Internet, needs a network architecture — there’s art in that. Such architectures need the right number of enduring standards, fewer to maximize interoperability, but more to enable specialization, to span diverse requirements, and to expedite technological evolution. Networking experts know best how to do this; we’ve been practicing on the Internet for 63 years (since the invention of the transistor).

The smart grid needs more than expedient silos, even more than artful networking. The smart grid needs inter-networking. The Internet now “internetworks” (connects various networks) including computer access, email, telephone, television, commerce, finance, advertising, news, travel, books, music, videos… and social networking (like my thoughts on Twitter). Hopefully, soon health care will be done over the Internet.

A Smart Intergrid

Internet history strongly suggests that the smart grid will eventually have to interconnect grids carrying various forms of electricity, other energy transport grids (like gas pipelines), water grids, transportation grids (like roads for electric cars), and of course the Internet’s various information grids, soon including new grids for distributed energy management inside buildings.

What we’ll need, to coin a phrase, is “the Intergrid.”

Internet history also indicates that various new forms of energy storage will need to be networked in and around the Intergrid. There will be increasing variability, much of it unpredictable, among energy sources (like wind and solar), among more diverse and efficient energy uses, and among transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure. New technologies, none shovel-ready right now, will be needed for providing storage to mediate among these variabilities.

Which leads back to one last networking acronym, IETF. The Internet Engineering Task Force should be invited to play a more active role in developing the smart grid, the Intergrid. Vint Cerf, known as the father of the Internet and who’s now at Google, says the smart grid should follow in the Internet’s footsteps. And he’s right, again.

So, go now to the FCC’s site if you think you might want to contribute your smart grid ideas before Oct. 2. Hurry!

Mr. Metcalfe is a venture capitalist with Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, Mass. He founded 3Com Corp. and proposed Metcalfe’s Law. He is a trustee of MIT and received the National Medal of Technology “for leadership in the invention, standardization, and commercialization of Ethernet.”

For more on Mr. Metcalfe’s ideas about energy networking (or EnerNet) watch his presentation at our Green:Net ’09 conference.

6 Responses to “How the FCC Can Lead Us to a Smart Intergrid”

  1. J. Nichols

    For such a smart guy, Bob has this one exactly wrong. Dedicated or allocated spectrum is one of the best things the FCC could do to make energy grids smarter. As for using the Internet, I don’t understand the point he’s trying to make – what he’s saying is pretty much nonsense. The Internet is a set of communication protocols that are physical layer agnostic. You can run IP over copper, fiber and yes, RF. The problem utilities have in smart grid communications isn’t lack of good protocols – it’s lack of a physical and transport layer that reaches every point on the grid and has enough information carrying capacity to do the job.