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Forum addresses smart grid roadblocks

Posted: 04 Feb 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart grid? network? Zigbee? engineering challenge?

A panel at the Grid ComForum noted that engineers will face plenty of challenges enabling smart grids in the home and in utility distribution networks.

In the home, a key standard for connecting devices to a smart meter will not be complete until October. Thus, even though Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) claims it will have installed five million smart meters by March, PG&E has not enabled for two-way links into the home the Zigbee radios in those smart meters.

That's in part because a Smart Energy standard for Zigbee does not use Internet Protocol or address security requirements. A 2.0 version of that spec covering Zigbee over IP and Homeplug powerline standards will address security but will not be complete until October.

That's when PG&E expects to start trials of the Zigbee capability in its installed smart meters from Silver Spring Networks. Systems to help consumers manage home power use are expected to become available in early 2011.

U. S. utilities are said to have signed contracts to install as many as 45 million smart meters. Most of them are using Zigbee, some already in use with applications level security built in for the Smart Energy 1.0 spec.

The next big jobs will be educating retailers and consumers about the opportunities in selling and using such systems. "We need to make this as attractive as putting a new app on their iPhone," said Megan O'Brien, project manager for home networking at PG&E.

Meanwhile, the Homeplug Powerline Alliance is finishing up by April its Green PHY specification for powerline-based energy management devices in the home. Products using the spec are also expected early next year.

Homeplug member Intellon, acquired by Atheros, got a government grant to aid the design of its Green PHY chip. PG&E expects to enable Zigbee-to-powerline bridging so consumers can use wither Zigbee or powerline devices.

No new technology is needed to enable the new energy-management devices and networks in the home. However, it is not yet clear who will handle testing, certification and support of such devices, said Raj Vaswani, chief technology officer of Silver Spring.

Rick Geiger, director of energy business solutions at Cisco Systems, suggested that engineers face even bigger hurdles developing systems for power distribution networks.

"There have been few communications capabilities in distribution part of the grid, but we are about to add a lot of electronics to it and the longevity, mean time between failure and maintenance schedules of those systems are yet to be determined," Geiger said. "We hope to increase reliability, but it will take a fine job of engineering to do that," he added.

The shift to smart grid features will continue to be driven primarily by government policy regulations, Geiger added, not by the emerging ability of consumers to shave a few dollars off their power bills.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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