Cybersecurity and interoperability are vital aspects that need to be sorted out if "intelligent" electricity grids are going to enter the mainstream. The various market players and stakeholders need to rapidly provide some clarity in these as yet uncertain areas.

Even though roll-out of “smart grids” is often seen as just around the corner, we need to be aware that a lot of effort is still required, especially in the areas of cybersecurity and interoperability. This is basically the conclusion drawn by the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which has just brought out an update of its Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability, originally published in January 2010. Cybersecurity is of course the focus of attention. Mechanisms for ensuring confidentiality, integrity and availability of electronic information communication systems still need to be put in place. Information and communication equipment used to control the power-delivery infrastructure must be protected from any potential coordinated attacks which could destabilise the entire network.

Cybersecurity and interoperability the focus of attention

Companies and public sector service providers will need to set up specific training in this area and the subject should also be included in the education curriculum. Close cooperation is also needed between government agencies and the industry in order to guard against anyone potentially breaking into the network. Another important point will be to ensure efficient technical migration from the current structures to a smart grid setup. Though many processes will have to be changed, it is essential to build in full interoperability between the power network management systems in place today and the smart grid from the very outset.

Concerns over electromagnetic disturbance

The authors of the report are concerned that electromagnetic disturbances and interference might arise between the different devices – routing or communications equipment, etc – linked to the smart grid resources. Given that there are many different kinds of system, there cannot be a single standard to address this problem. For example, it will be essential to calibrate signals linked to domestic consumption differently from those relating to vital administrative services to avoid interference, or to limit the reach of such potential problems to certain very specific zones. In any case, insists George Arnold, National Coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at NIST, it’s now urgent to correctly define standards for smart grids and identify the next areas for study. "Because the Smart Grid will be a highly complex system of interacting systems, it is essential that everyone with a stake in the new grid - utilities, manufacturers, equipment testers and regulators - has a common understanding of its major building blocks and how they interrelate," he underlines.