Evolving Infrastructure Models: Telecom, Electricity & the IoT

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Though not as essential as drinking water, I consider both electricity and Internet access to be core infrastructure, with high fixed costs and providing general purpose support for the requirements of modern life.

As the Internet expands to include networked “things” as well as people, and electric utilities pursue a future “smart grid,” the scope of these two sectors’ activity seem likely to overlap more than ever in the future. One example of this is the widespread deployment by utilities of so-called “smart meters” connected via the utility’s own (usually wireless) network. Though it’s unclear how this strategy will evolve (and, as I explain here, its most typical forms may be seriously flawed), it strikes me as a step toward creating an Internet of Things (IoT) in which utility-controlled devices provide key control functions.

This movement of electric utilities into the communication space raises some interesting questions about how all this will and should evolve. Two related issues come initially to mind.

One is the general approach we take as a society to ensure that companies operating in core infrastructure sectors serve the public interest. In the telecom and Internet space, the model that has evolved over the years is mainly one of encouraging facilities-based competition (as I discussed in an earlier post, the Lansing area [and my own household] is currently benefiting from such competition). And though the FCC recently added to this a Title II-based framework for enforcing key non-discrimination requirements, the Commission emphasized its intention to make heavy use of regulatory forbearance in achieving this policy goal.  As this communication policy model has evolved at the federal level, the regulatory powers of state and local government have been steadily and considerably diminished in the telecom/Internet space.

In contrast, the locus of public interest policy enforcement in the electric power industry has remained state-level regulatory agencies. And while there has been an increase in choice and competition in the provision of centralized power generation, there is virtually no facilities-based competition in retail distribution, and considerable disagreement about how to handle distributed generation, most notably rooftop solar.  Whereas the Internet has enabled its users to become producers as well as consumers of online-enabled content and services, the evolution to an “empowered prosumer” future is less clear and increasingly contentious in the electric power industry.

This ties into another issue, which relates to the control of customer premise devices and the customer-related information they collect and transmit to the utility. In a paper entitled “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid,” Timothy Schoechle suggested the electric utility industry look to the telecom sector for guidance rather than move forward with their current “smart meter” plans.

The demarcation between monopoly utility space and customer market space was clarified over two decades ago in the case of wire-line telephone monopolies with the decisions and policy changes culminating in the divestiture of AT&T. One result was enormous…growth in new markets for premises equipment and services. The electricity grid today is facing the same demarcation inflection point as the telephone network experienced. The gateway belongs to the consumer, not to the electric utility. A demarcation and opening of the consumer premises space to market competition could unleash the creative energy of the consumer electronics industry, the home appliance industry, and others. Full two-way smart grid communication among premises-based systems, products, and services—facilitated by a consumer-controlled gateway device and already available data services (i.e., Internet and Web access via DSL, cable, fiber, etc.) —would free the smart grid from the stifling control of utilities and their proprietary meter-reading networks…

Data to be collected by the smart meters, including intimate personal details of citizens’ lives, is not necessary to the basic purpose of the smart grid—supply/demand balancing, demand response (DR), dynamic pricing, renewable integration, or local generation and storage—as promoters of the meters, and uninformed parties, routinely claim. Instead, the meter data is serving to create an extraneous market for consumer data mining and advertising (i.e., “big data” analytics).

A concern I have regarding the electric power industry’s evolution to a “smart grid” and renewable-rich, low-carbon future is whether traditional state regulatory agencies have the necessary multidisciplinary expertise, regulatory systems and broad vision to guide this evolution wisely, especially amidst signs that global warming is reaching dangerous and potentially irreversible levels faster than expected, and the fact that the smart grid represents a significant extension into the communication sector. (Note: some cities, including Lansing and East Lansing, the Quello Center’s home base, are served by municipally-owned utilities, which are typically not subject to the same level of state regulatory oversight as investor owned utilities.)

Perhaps this is an appropriate topic for study by MSU’s Institute of Public Utilities, which includes faculty from multiple colleges, including some with close ties to the Quello Center and/or the Media and Information department in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. With so much at stake for the future of our nation’s electrical grid, the IoT, and society as a whole, it certainly seems a topic worthy of the kind of multidisciplinary analysis that IPU seems well positioned to convene, perhaps in collaboration with the communication policy-focused Quello Center.

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Using ICT to Develop Infrastructure Systems for the “Digital Anthropocene”

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the design and management of society’s core infrastructure systems (which I define broadly to include things like healthcare, education, housing and “money”) in an era marked by several important trends (for reasons suggested below, I refer to this as the “digital anthropocene”):

  1. substantial (and currently destructive) impacts of human activities on natural systems, a planetary phase referred to as the Anthropocene;
  2. continued and arguably mounting evidence that the status-quo dynamics within our dominant political and economic systems are aggravating rather than reducing inequalities in wealth and related factors;
  3. the dramatic expansion in scope, content and functionality of digitally-mediated connectivity among humans and “things” via ever-more-capable information and communication technology (ICT).

To flesh this out a bit, here are some examples of developments reflective of these trends (some of which I’ve already written about here):

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The Rush to “Smart” Meters: Maybe Not So Smart?

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In a recent blog post I discussed a critique of today’s “smart meters” that focused on the technology’s shortcomings as a step toward creating a “smart grid” that reduces climate change risks and other negative impacts associated with our current carbon-intensive energy systems. In another recent post I discussed the need for more research on EMF health effects.

In this post I’m going to revisit the subject of smart meters from a perspective informed by both of those prior posts.  One of my goals is to use smart meters as a specific example of how, when making decisions about large-scale technology deployments, we can and should give more weight to the precautionary principle, especially when a technology’s benefits are as poorly understood and/or overstated as seems to be the case with today’s generation of smart meters.

As discussed in my earlier post on smart meters, their initial rollout (like much of the stimulus bill’s spending) was intended to invest in technologies and initiatives that had strategic value to our society, and to do so as quickly as possible (the federal government was, after all, trying desperately to revive demand following a global crisis that pushed our financial system to the brink of total collapse, and our economy into a deep recession).

Though this was a worthy goal, I’d argue that, in the case of smart meters (as well as electronic health records and other areas covered by the bill), the need to “spend fast” made the task of “spending wisely” very difficult and, perhaps in some cases, impossible.

To clarify this point, let’s briefly compare these two programs (smart meters and EHRs) to the broadband connectivity portion of the stimulus bill. Though the latter was not without some risk of misallocated investment, it involved mature and largely standardized technologies, and fairly straightforward and time-tested planning and execution steps.

In contrast, the investment in smart meters and EHRs involved inserting much less mature and standardized technologies into key interface points within essential infrastructure systems (e.g., electricity and healthcare) whose urgent need for fundamental and systemic change confronts a complex web of entrenched interests. For these programs, the potential risk of unintended negative consequencies is far more serious and difficult to predict than those involved in extending broadband networks to underserved areas.

Flying too fast and too blind?

As suggested by my earlier post, one of the risks associated with the current generation of wireless-networked smart meters relates to potential negative EMF impacts on health. My point here is not that these impacts are necessarily large and ominous, but that: 1) they are not well understood, especially when we consider the range of factors involved in the smart meter deployment (including, as discussed below, the configuration of devices in multiple dwelling units) and; 2) virtually no in-depth research on health risks was done prior to the nearly nationwide smart meter rollout now underway (in that earlier post I argued that such research was important to do and suggested one approach to funding it).

In the discussion that follows, I’m going to use my own evolution from barely-informed enthusiasm to somewhat-informed caution to make some key points about the smart meter deployment.

A few years ago I was living in California when San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), the local utility, began its smart meter rollout. I was initially pretty excited about it, since the move to a “smart grid” was something I’d thought was a good idea since doing some research and consulting in this area back in the 1990s. But, after the meters were installed, I was exposed to information (ranging from personal stories to scientific studies) that made me wonder if more attention to safety was warranted. This information also convinced me that more research should have been done before utilities started deploying RF-networked smart meters on a massive scale and in ways that may have been most convenient, inexpensive and profitable for them, but that might increase the risks of negative health impacts; or to put it another way, that the overly-hurried smart meter rollout was premature and an unnecessary and unwise violation of the precautionary principle.

My concerns were initially triggered by my own situation with regard to the smart meter rollout.

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Are “Smart Meters” a Costly Diversion From the “Smart Grid” We Really Need?

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I recently read a paper entitled “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid” by Timothy Schoechle. Though the paper’s primary focus is the electricity industry, it seems a fitting topic for the Quello Center blog because it raises important questions about how best to use information and communication technology to support a sustainable energy system that addresses the increasingly urgent issue of climate change and other environmental challenges we now face.  And it does so in a way that challenges conventional wisdom regarding the massive and costly deployment of so-called “smart meters” now underway across the country.

The paper’s core argument, as I understand it, is that the nationwide smart meter deployment catalyzed by the 2008 federal stimulus bill is actually a step in the wrong direction. This is because it supports a continuation of utilities’ existing reliance on:

Instead of deploying utility-controlled “smart meters” (which, as he explains, are 20+ year-old technology originally designed to reduce meter reading costs and aren’t really very smart at all), Shoechle advocates a different approach to addressing climate change and transitioning as quickly as possible to a sustainable energy infrastructure. This approach would focus on and combine:

A key question, according to Schoechle, is who controls the gateway device linking end user premises to the electrical grid. In his view, the electric utility industry should look to the model created years ago in the telecom sector:

The demarcation between monopoly utility space and customer market space was clarified over two decades ago in the case of wire-line telephone monopolies with the decisions and policy changes culminating in the divestiture of AT&T. One result was enormous…growth in new markets for premises equipment and services. The electricity grid today is facing the same demarcation inflection point as the telephone network experienced. The gateway belongs to the consumer, not to the electric utility. A demarcation and opening of the consumer premises space to market competition could unleash the creative energy of the consumer electronics industry, the home appliance industry, and others. Full two-way smart grid communication among premises-based systems, products, and services—facilitated by a consumer-controlled gateway device and already available data services (i.e., Internet and Web access via DSL, cable, fiber, etc.) —would free the smart grid from the stifling control of utilities and their proprietary meter-reading networks.

Part of the problem, explains Schoechle, is that one of the stimulus bill’s central goals was to spend money fast. At that time, the networked digital meters being deployed were the only off-the-shelf technology available to quickly absorb the bulk of the budgeted investment in a “smart grid.”  And dubbing them “smart” meters made this budget allocation seem all the more reasonable (if we need a “smart grid,” then “smart meters” sure seems like a good place to start).

Since it allowed them to retain control of the next generation of customer-premise equipment while expanding the cost-basis on which their profits are calculated, utilities (and the vendors from whom they were buying the devices), embraced the large scale deployment of these meters. And, to most politicians and citizens, it sounded like a sensible (though not well understood) step toward a future “smart grid,” especially when federal stimulus funds were available—but only for a short time—to finance the purchase of whatever form of “smart grid” technology was available at that time.

Schoechle paints a very different and more problematic picture of the stimulus-financed rush to deploy so-called smart meters (bolding for emphasis is mine):

The [smart] meter networks squander vast sums of money, create enormous risks to privacy and security, introduce known and still unknown possible risks to public health, and sour the public on the true promise of the smart grid. Data to be collected by the smart meters, including intimate personal details of citizens’ lives, is not necessary to the basic purpose of the smart grid—supply/demand balancing, demand response (DR), dynamic pricing, renewable integration, or local generation and storage—as promoters of the meters, and uninformed parties, routinely claim. Instead, the meter data is serving to create an extraneous market for consumer data mining and advertising (i.e., “big data” analytics)…

[S]mart meters have failed to deliver smart grid benefits for fundamentally technical reasons. Examples include that 1) the networks do not generally provide full two-way communication, 2) customer usage display was, in most cases, of stale data (24 hour delayed) on a third-party website—on-site real-time display is not feasible using most meter backhaul networks—and 3) smart meters and their networks cannot or are ill-equipped to implement demand response load control strategies…

What is almost always assumed or alluded to by meter advocates, but never explained, is how reading meters, however frequently, can serve the goals of functions of the smart grid—i.e., balancing supply and demand. Never explained is how granular personal meter data helps manage the grid. It is believed by some that consumer electricity usage behavior data may be useful to utilities or to consumers. But it is not clear how such data would actually be applied, nor is it clear that there are not cheaper and more benign ways to acquire it. SCADA  [supervisory control and data acquisition] networks already provide utilities with the aggregate transformer or substation load data needed to assess distribution loads and conditions. A premises meter is not needed, or would be impractically cumbersome to use, to aggregate data to derive distribution grid load information. 

Schoechle sees a different path leading to a truly smart and sustainable electric power grid.  As he explains:

[M]anagement of premises demand response, supply/demand balancing or control/monitoring of solar systems, electric vehicles (EVs), or batteries would be better accomplished by distributed control through intelligent energy management devices and transactional control strategies. What is needed is not meter data flowing out of the premises, but rather grid load, time-of-use signals, or electricity transactional data flowing into the premises so that the premises can manage its own energy. This would require full two-way communication via a gateway with premises-based equipment such as home automation systems (HA), smart inverters, smart appliances, energy management systems, etc. that do the job of managing energy on-premises.

Present day meters do not provide such a gateway. The meters generally do not provide data directly to the customer, but rather upload it to the utility, which may or may not provide it later to customers via a third-party web portal (usually delayed by at least 24 hours). Customer usage displays would need to be real-time or near real-time to be useful to consumers and even then the best displays are no substitute for premises-based automated energy management equipment that would act on behalf of consumer priorities and do so entirely within their own homes…

In another section of the paper, Schoechle provides more detail about what he sees as a true “smart grid” and how it can shift our electricity usage away from fuels and systems that contribute to climate change and pollution and are not sustainable. Unlike the widespread but superficially-driven enthusiasm for today’s “smart” meters, his perspective strikes me as grounded in an understanding of problems associated with current utility practices, what keeps these practices and problems in place, and what’s needed to change the practices and fix the problems.

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