Feds lead Smart Grid development effort

Tuesday - 6/15/2010, 7:15am EDT

WFED's Max Cacas

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By Max Cacas
Reporter
Federal News Radio

When you think of cybersecurity, the first thing most people talk about is protecting the nation's computer networks from hackers.

But officials are also concerned about protecting the nation's electrical transmission and distribution network, better known as "the grid."

Over the years, countless studies, and even a few fictional accounts, have forecast disastrous consequences from the outdated and vulnerable nature of the nation's electrical grid.

Now, the effort to protect the grid has caught the attention of Capitol Hill.

Last week, the House, on a voice vote, approved HR 5026, "The Grid Reliability and Infrastructure Defense Act", better known as "The GRID Act."

The measure, if signed into law, would give the President sweeping new emergency powers over the nation's electrical grid. But the bill would also mandate widespread, some say badly needed, improvements in the electrical distribution system nationwide.

All of which is designed to minimize the possibility of disruption of the U.S. electrical grid.

Recently, some of the top federal officials heading up a special task force working on their agencies efforts on behalf of the Smart Grid talked about their work before an IT industry luncheon here in Washington,

The Association for Federal Information Resources Management, AFFIRM, recently devoted one of its monthly luncheons at George Washington University to the topic of the Smart Grid.

One of the AFFIRM panelists, Eric Lightener, director of the Federal Smart Grid Task Force at the Department of Energy, says one of the biggest challenges for feds trying to make the grid smarter boils down to one simple, but hard to accomplish, concept: interoperability, or common standards that would allow electrical grid management systems to work with each other.

"Right now, the way it works, those standards don't exist," he told a panel discussion. "Equipment made by GE (General Electric) doesn't talk to equipment from another vendor, so it's not optimized at all, it's very much the wild west out there. We're trying to bring some efficiencies and consistency by developing some standards and interoperability."

David Wollman is leader of the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) Smart Grid team, heading up the Electrical Metrology Groups. He says an important challenge for those who would like to improve protection of the nation's electrical grid is doing the hard, advance legwork of interoperability, by developing the common standards for the operation of the grid.

"All the voltage, and current and resistance units that are used for instrumentation are all traceable back to our laboratories. Standards are also documentary standards, these are the protocols and procedures of how to accomplish certain tasks and functions."

One agency that you would least be likely to associate with a smart electrical grid would be the Federal Communications Commission. But Nick Sinai, Energy and Environment Director of the FCC's Omnibus Broadband Initiative told AFFIRM that the Smart Grid is actually part of the congressionally mandated National Broadband Initiative.

"Broadband is not just an entertainment and communications mechanism," he explained, adding that Congress in recent years was very explicit in asking how to leverage broadband and advanced communications for national goals and national purposes. Sinai says that even before the recent passage of "The Grid Act", lawmakers had already been mandating that development of the Smart Grid be tied in with long-term efforts to protect the nation's cybersecurity infrastructure.

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Related links:

Federal News Radio - Smart Grid, Smart Future series (2009).

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