EPRI’s Erfan Ibrahim: 5 Myths About the Smart Grid Buildout

Panel discussions at technology conferences are often pretty dry affairs, but smart grid expert Erfan Ibrahim of the influential group Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) proved today at a conference in San Francisco that even topics like home area networks can rile a crowd. Speaking at The Networked Grid conference hosted by Greentech Media, Ibrahim — who heads EPRI’s work on communications, systems management and cyber security for the smart grid — dished out a sort of grab bag of opinions on a range of hot smart grid topics. Here are five myths, misunderstandings and truths he raised about how the smart grid should be rolled out.

The electric grid is not antiquated but it needs connectivity:  There is a rumor that the electric grid is antiquated that is “spreading from Silicon Valley” by people who don’t really understand the industry. The grid is made up of many intelligent devices that are widely dispersed. The challenge, generally speaking, is not to improve the devices that are already deployed but to cost-effectively network them together.

Don’t put too much smarts into the meter: If you do, five years down the line you’ll regret it as technology advances. Then your meter will be obsolete. Instead, the intelligence around services like home area networks should be “in a box” that you place in the home and that can easily be swapped like a home computer as technology advances. In a related comment, Ibrahim said meters aren’t the only route for the smart grid to extend into the home. Other options could evolve, though he didn’t offer any examples.

Grid security requires comprehensive security, not just a big wall: Utilities can’t just build a big wall and expect to keep everyone out. A comprehensive approach to security will include technological advancement but also personnel training, process control and open digital security standards.

Go slow with the adoption of interoperability standards: Smart grid communication standards should be based on best practices. So the industry should develop the science first and then put the standard in place, not the other way around (Pacific Gas & Electric’s Kevin Dasso, while speaking on the same panel, appeared to disagree, however, when he said that you can either let the standards control you or you can work to control the standards) . Ibrahim also said the smart grid industry shouldn’t think it can take Internet Protocol and quickly shift it over to the electric grid. There are several reasons, one of them being that the electric grid must be more secure than IP currently enables.

Home energy management systems need to impress the neighbors: Many Americans won’t pay a dollar for a soda out of a machine, but put them at a bar next to someone they want to impress and they’ll easily spend three. So home energy management solutions that just show you how much energy you use and when won’t get much market penetration. The solution has to have some bells and whistles that will allow customers to impress their neighbors, say by linking it in some way with the family flat screen TV or by controlling appliances automatically. In a related comment, Ibrahim said he expects the private sector demand-response players, such as EnerNOC or Tendril, to increasingly offer customer-centric solutions for lowering their power usage. These solutions may be tied to home energy management systems.

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