Risks of the Smart Grid

The smart grid regulates power delivered to transformers such as this one.
The smart grid regulates power delivered to transformers such as this one. | Source

Introduction

The evolution of the smart grid started with the desire to gather real time information on the power grid. The hope was that highly detailed or “granular” information would enable dramatic energy savings by helping utilities identify the biggest consumers and general trends.

These users could then be given advice on how to bring down usage while user education could shift energy usage to non-peak times, decreasing demands during the day while helping utilities plan for regular peaks that require either rarely used power sources or cause brown outs.

Given these advantages, what are the risks of implementing the smart grid?

Smart grid components have information valuable to potential thieves, but they have less security than many laptops.
Smart grid components have information valuable to potential thieves, but they have less security than many laptops. | Source

Short Term Risks of the Smart Grid

It has already been highlighted in information security seminars that the smart grid gives hackers a new way to target the power grid. Forget blowing up a major dam or setting off an Electromagnetic Pulse weapon over a major city, just repeat the denial of service attacks Anonymous uses and shut down the communication lines of the smart power grid.

The same hackers who change traffic control signs to declare that zombies are coming may have fun tricking smart grid sensors into turning off someone’s air conditioning in July or tripling someone’s electric bill by a simple flip of a bit.

Denial of service attacks against the smart grid could cause it to malfunction or trigger brown outs as power production fails to keep up with increasing demand during the day. Conversely, disrupting controls of power production into the evening could trigger local overloads as power plants are not shut down though demand is falling. Or hackers could simply reach through the smart grid and start turning devices on, triggering brown outs or black outs.

Then there is the old fashioned fear of embarrassment of posting energy consumption levels of those who use more than average or using smart grid information to report that someone owns an indoor swimming pool and five big screen TVs. These malicious acts are separate from the ability of the government to use the smart grid to regulate devices within one’s own home. We will see if the government will take the currently free consumer’s option to reduce power usage when requested and start turning off appliances when it thinks you’ve watched too much TV or should not have both the computer and TV running at once.

Security meters could theoretically be hacked to gain access to the utility company’s computers. In “Smart meter and smart grids: security risk or opportunity?” by Warwick Ashford in the January 25, 2011 edition of Computer Weekly, the value of the electrical profile data was mentioned. It gives criminals an accurate method of determining a resident’s habits, letting them know when a consumer is never home.

One of the few commonly cited reasons for a smart meter opt out is the fear that wireless broadcasts will cause cancer or affect the user’s health. However, this is one of the few short term risks consumers fear that is not an actual threat. Both the FCC and American Cancer Society have said that cell phones do not cause cancer, and smart meters use the same technology to relay information to utilities.

The bandwidth and signals used to relay information about the power grid's status competes with other wireless signals.
The bandwidth and signals used to relay information about the power grid's status competes with other wireless signals. | Source

Long Term Risks of the Smart Grid

There is the possibility that the energy used to monitor, maintain, report and control the smart grid will exceed the energy savings that result as the smart grid expands. It is more likely in my opinion that the cost of implementing the smart grid will eventually exceed the money saved by consumers and utilities by reducing consumption and delaying additional power generation that must be brought online to meet the needs to a growing and industrializing population.

Renewable energy from wind and solar power currently costs more per kilowatt than natural gas, coal and oil. Switching to a smart grid to handle renewable energy drives up the cost of converting to renewables even higher. Pushing the adoption of a slow grid could drive up the cost of electricity when consumers are already struggling to pay for renewable energy, causing consumers to push back against further spread of the smart grid.


IEEE Standard 2030 sets the basic framework for smart grid interoperability. However, components such as local power monitoring and power system controls already in place may not work with new smart grid components added in the future. The long term goal of an interoperable smart grid will hit road-blocks in the future when thousands of devices are found to be incompatible after installation or software problems occur across the grid.

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Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 4 years ago from San Francisco

Wow, I had no idea that Anonymous-style DoS attacks could be applied to smart grids. That's a pretty sobering fact! Thanks for sharing the info. O_O

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