Monday, August 30, 2010

Security isn’t the Biggest Threat to the Smart Grid

You’d be forgiven for thinking that with the recent excitement over the Stuxnet virus (here, here and here) and other cyber threats, that this blogger believes that security issues present the biggest challenge to the success of a national Smart Grid.

But there's something else that threatens the grand Smart Grid project on an even more fundamental level: we all have to believe in the goodness of this work enough to see it through ... even when there are setbacks. And sometimes it seems we might not.

The corollary of the oft-cited Field of Dreams baseball diamond axiom “If you build it, they will come” is the far less-often cited “… and if you don’t, they won’t”. In 2010 we’re still in the Smart Grid’s infancy, and while it’s not yet clear what’s the right way to build it, this case has shown that failing to plan and permit up front is one guaranteed way to fail. The net net is that the Smart Grid will not be fully deployed in Boulder … not for the foreseeable future anyway.

According to SmartGridNews, Greentech Media and earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher:
The real problem is that [they] didn’t perform a cost-benefit analysis prior to starting the project. [Also] the group originally didn’t file for a “Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity” … when the project started … a filing that would have enabled the PUC to cap costs of the project to protect rate payers.
Go back to an online debate we held on the Smart Grid Security Blog and the SmartGridNews site almost a year ago. We began with a post I called “First Mover Disadvantage”, turning a standard business school strategy on its head. The basic idea was that in these very early days, there’s far too much uncertainty (e.g., technology, standards, business models, regulatory environment, etc.) for companies, especially electric utilities, to get a jump on the market without enduring substantial setbacks and risk enormous costs for themselves and their rate payers.

Jack’s response, "Not the Lead Dog? Get used to the View", made the case that despite the uncertainty, those utilities with enough chutzpah to get their hands dirty, make mistakes, learn from them and press on, would command a disproportionate share of influence in the market over those sitting on the sidelines waiting for the eventual shake out.

I like both of these ideas, and surely a decent university debate team could make a lot of hay advancing either argument. But I’m going to say that the SmartGridCity project is an example of moving big and early, and in-so-doing, doing it wrong from the get-go. Projects this complex, with this many players, will inevitably be quite risky, and therefore must be managed extra carefully. There is less room for short cuts, and even when designed and managed flawlessly, they may still endure their share of lumps. These folks sealed their fate in the beginning, and added insult to injury by boasting so publically about their achievements.

It’s that last part that bothers me the most as the biggest threats to the success of the Smart Grid aren’t what you might first imagine: it’s not cyber terrorists, regularity inertia, or flawed technology that most threaten the build-out of the US national Smart Grid. Rather, it’s a potential public perception that promised Smart Grid benefits aren’t nearly worth the costs that could kill it before it's born.

In the early days when we're still trying to figure out what works, there are going to be more Bakersfields, BG&E's and now Michigans for sure. But it's important that the industry ensure that success stories make their way to the media at least as often as the gotcha's. I want to focus on the security challenges facing the Smart Grid, but won't be able to do that for long if we don't get the thing fielded in the first place.

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