ANDY BOCHMAN: What Would It Take to Develop a Smart Grid?

First off, what’s a “smart grid”?

It’s a mash-up of the current electrical grid, layering on IT, Internet and other communications.

What are the benefits of a smart grid?

Insight, knowledge, flexibility, efficiency, resiliency and security. The smart grid improves all of these things over what we currently have in the so-called legacy grid.

Over the past 10 years we’ve had the hydrogen hype, the promise of cellulosic ethanol, etc. What’s different this time?

The previous waves of interest in the technologies or process of the day reveal the frustration with the status quo—the status quo being dependence on fuel sources that are dirty, dangerous or outside our control. For decades we’ve been railing against those things, so when a new technology comes to the fore people immediately gravitate toward it.

The smart grid is different and won’t go away. For one, it will continue to happen because the legacy infrastructure has been pushed to its limits—you can call that the “aging infrastructure problem.” Second, we have these new energy sources, many of them in their infancy, that can’t be leveraged in quantities that really make a difference until the grid is updated to be able to handle their intermittent natures.

I was under the impression that a smart grid wouldn’t care if the electrons were clean or not and that the main benefit of a smart grid is improved efficiency.

The global motivation to build a smart grid is partly the desire to use cleaner energy sources—but you’re right, the grid doesn’t care. It will move the electrons around either way. The smart grid will allow you to have a much better understanding of where the electrons are coming from, where they’re needed and where there are problems you can potentially circumvent.

What’s holding us back from full-blown deployment—capital, infrastructure, policy, politics, etc.?

It’s all of those factors, but the smart grid isn’t an on-or-off switch. Some have said the smart grid has been under construction for some time, and depending on where you look that’s right. Whether it’s generation, transmission, distribution or consumption at the endpoint—you can see glimmers of it and even more than that. It’s already a work in progress.

What are the other roadblocks to launching a smart grid?

I wrote a post a couple years ago called “Smart Grid First Mover Disadvantage”—a takeoff on the popular business adage “First Mover Advantage.”

We can use the smart meters as the poster children—those guys who spent a lot of money, whether it was their own or government matching funds, to deploy smart meters en masse before a lot of important security and communications standards were taking a risk.

The argument for deploying is that if you never do it you won’t get started, you’ll learn along the way and maybe there is an advantage to starting early. The argument against it is, what if what you deploy today is soon obsolete and not upgradable in a year or two? That’s a sunk cost. Are you saying you’re going to go back to the public utility commission and say, “Oh sorry, we blew it and now we need to buy another $2 million worth of smart meters?” When companies in the energy sector make capital purchases, that’s for items that get deployed for at least a decade, if not many decades. So, that’s the risk of deploying smart grid technologies early.

Especially in my realm, interoperability, communications and security standards will also always be in motion. It will be left to the utilities, regulators and industry to say when they are far enough along that you can deploy something new with confidence.

So, the smart grid is much more than just an energy challenge.

It sure is. It brings in so many different disciplines. That’s why so many people who are working on the smart grid include not only individuals from inside the electric utility industry but individuals with security backgrounds in the cybersecurity realm, information technology, business consulting and more.

Energy security expert Andy Bochman

Andy Bochman
PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDY BOCHMAN

Say the words “smart grid” and visions of a Tron-like landscape where electrons pulse along glowing transmission lines while conserving massive amounts of energy come to mind. Momentum recently caught up with ANDY BOCHMAN, energy security lead with IBM’s Security Systems Division, to see how well this utopian view of the grid of the future meshed with reality.


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