Embracing Disruption and Standards for the Sake of a Smart Grid


Posted by Mark Ryland 
National Standards Officer (USA)Mark Ryland

Today is World Standards Day, a celebration whose theme this year is “Tackling climate change through standards.” I can’t help but think back a few days to a nondescript hotel conference room in a suburb of Washington, D.C. About 45 intelligent, opinionated, intense people from many industries gathered at the “invitation” (as in, “be there or else!”) of NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Our job: work on the roadmap for the creation and evolution of a bunch of technical standards, very quickly, for the Smart Grid, the widely-anticipated computerized energy system of the future.

The Smart Grid is a vision of a secure, information-driven electrical system in which every device reports on and coordinates its power use and the system uses electric power from anywhere, including home solar panels and idle hybrid vehicles that sell extra battery power back to the grid. Realizing this vision could lower costs and increase energy efficiency. That’s why it’s not (just) a gee-whiz futuristic scenario but a major policy objective of the Obama Administration. Federal and state governments want the Smart Grid to become real really fast.

But there’s a problem. Bits and bytes need to flow across the Smart Grid between devices and systems from many suppliers. It must be a big, open platform, and that requires lots of standards. And although the voluntary standards system serves well in most circumstances, it’s not known for speed. Usually, standards trail, modify, and codify cutting-edge innovation and business practices, rather than drive or enable them. This is one of those unusual cases where the normal speed of standardization may not be good enough.

To its credit, the U.S. government has not succumbed to the temptation to create technical standards in a top-down, regulatory fashion. It knows that for the Smart Grid to succeed, all stakeholders need to participate, not just in meetings, but also by investing in cutting-edge products that show the value and make good on some of the initial promises of the Smart Grid.

And so a committed team at NIST is pushing hard to speed up the voluntary standards process. Many key players come from the utility industry, where stability, reliability, and control have been the watchwords. On the other side, information technology providers are chomping at the bit to deploy their products and services in exciting new ways. We’re the disruptive players, and disruption can be fun – when you’re the one doing it! That said, I’ve been deeply impressed by how the utilities’ representatives recognize and welcome the need for change; they may be a bit more cautious and careful, but they’re fully embracing the Smart Grid future.

To serve the Smart Grid, Microsoft is building and deploying new products such as Microsoft Hohm, a consumer-oriented energy management application build on our new Windows Azure cloud computing platform. We’re also working to enable and extend our existing products to support Smart Grid scenarios. Just yesterday we announced with a number of industry partners a comprehensive new Smart Energy Reference Architecture. And we’re focused on the standards process as well, because that’s a big part of creating the Smart Grid as an open platform on which massive innovation can occur, unleashing applications and value that we can’t foresee.

That’s why I was happy to sit in that drab conference room helping make the standards happen quickly. By working toward common goals, and overcoming the fear of disruption that usually accompanies rapid change, we will get it done. We’ll help engineer a more sustainable future. I suspect nobody in that conference room was thinking about it at the time, but the kind of hard work that was done there is exactly what we celebrate when we celebrate World Standards Day.


Comments (2)

  1. Anonymous says:

    The Smart Grid sounds like a key component, combined with GPS technology, to allow a government to know (and theoretically control) much of what its citizens do. A system observer could tell, for starters, when and where you drive, when you arrive home, when you go to bed, when you arise and leave, even when you have guests (a measurable rise in power and utility usage). One never has to look far to see the dark side of any ostensibly useful technology, and that dark side here is extensive indeed.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Tim, you raise an interesting and important point.  Technology is an enabler and an amplifier, neutral in itself but able to make our personal and social interactions better or worse.  The Smart Grid will be a business and social network as well as communications and control network.  It’s not hard to envision "big brother" scenarios enabled by a Smart Grid architecture that does not have security and privacy protections built in.       The good news is that many stakeholders, including Microsoft, are fully aware of those dangers and are working to avoid them.  No one should be able to access your private energy usage information (or control it remotely) without your permission.  Other players in the network can offer you incentives to knowingly release your private data, perhaps aggregated and/or anonymized, so that they can provide enhanced services based on your personal activities and usage, but should be a voluntary thing, based on full disclosure. The disclosure must include clear boundaries and limits as to how personal data is passed through the network.       On the flip side, a truly decentralized peer-to-peer Smart Grid can even enhance personal autonomy and freedom.  For example, an extended family or a small community could arrange for a group relationship with the Grid, buying and selling energy with the outside world as a unit while thus maintaining even more privacy about internal usage than is possible today.  Or to take a very simple single-family example: Today, if I own two homes, the power company could readily tell which one my family is living in at the moment.  With an open platform Smart Grid, that personal detail – why is it anyone else’s business whether I’m living in my normal residence or my vacation home? – could be hidden behind a single account identity that buys and sells energy on my behalf, regardless of my current physical location. In other words, electron flows can be separated from cost responsibility, thus increasing personal autonomy and privacy, and creating the possibility of greater and greater decentralization of power (no pun intended).     As a technology platform, the Smart Grid must be open, flexible, neutral, and secure. Microsoft is committed to working with our partners, policymakers, and other stakeholders to ensure that privacy values are honored and even enhanced in the new era of smart and sustainable energy.