The Internet of Utilities

I will start with an admission.  I am new to the utilities industry and the nuts and bolts of electricity, gas, or water networks.  But after more than 20 years in the ICT industry, I do know one thing or two about communication networks.  And the Internet, which barely existed 30 years ago has evolved into arguably the most sophisticated, complex, and rapidly changing system ever designed by human minds.

I was fortunate enough in my career to look at ICT networks from many different sides:

(i) from end user devices connecting at increasingly faster speeds, t seems like just yesterday I was working on what we called an internet screenphone that had an embedded v34 modem (who still remembers that term?);

(ii) from the core of carrier and enterprise networks, helping to accommodate the growing demand for access, speed, reliability, security and quality of service working successively on ATM nodes and ethernet layer 2 and layer 3 switches;

(iii) and last, from the application side, as I spent years designing enterprise communication systems and cloud-based applications.

In all these domains, technology moves incredibly fast, and so do business models (no need to even mention the Google, Facebook or the rebirth of Apple in the past 15 years to make this point).  The bottom line is that ICT networks today are radically different and have similarly radically altered the way users interact and/or utilize them with the impact we know and experience on our society.  Utility networks, on the other hand, while having seen some noteworthy evolutions have hardly evolved at the same pace.  The question is– is this about to change?

I remember a conversation with a colleague in the late 90s early 2000s, talking about hosted communication services.  We were entering the web 2.0 era where users would start contributing as much content to the Internet as they were consuming.  I contended that all this data would be produced, stored and distributed from centralized hosted service platforms (later to be known as data centers and further, cloud infrastructure).  He countered that people and businesses would never entrust information, contacts and other data to third parties, being too concerned about privacy, confidentiality and even more simply availability.  My response to that was a banking analogy:  “Just look how people deal with money, which they probably value as much, if not more in most cases, than information.  They keep only a little amount on their device while they rely on a network of financial institutions, branches and ATMs to access their accounts at any time and from any place”.  And even better, they were just starting to buy things on e-commerce sites via online transactions.  Money was completely virtualized.  That argument did give him pause, but did not completely sway him.

Anyway, we had no clue what was really about to come and how people would readily share their most intimate secrets, location, contacts and loads of other data on nascent social networks.  Years later though, I do claim a moral victory, my analogy made sense.  There was no reason why we could not create similar user experiences around information and communications as we did around money and financial transactions.  And there we are.

So why am I bringing this up?  

Well, because I am just about to draw a similar analogy between power and communication networks, as I am starting to learn about the basics of energy production, transmission and distribution, about the fragmentation of the industry in the U.S. with different standards and limited interconnections, about the storage and load balancing difficulties and finally, about the impact of renewable energy and overall energy-consciousness.  It seems to me indeed that many similar problems have been solved in the IP network and applying some of the concepts could actually improve utility network efficiency and offer new services and experiences to their customers.  Here are some examples:

  • Access Control

This is used to control which devices can access the network and from which port.  This would prevent plugging unauthorized devices in certain parts of the network.  It would also allow and/or facilitate billing in car charging stations and could enable new use cases in hospitality and healthcare.

  • Quality of Service (QoS)

Quality of service has many uses and involves multiple layers in communication protocols. It allows traffic shaping, prioritization of certain traffic flows, and bandwidth reservation. In a power network it could be used ensure essential devices are working at all times, even if it means drawing power from other networks and devices.

  • Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN)

This allows one to put devices located at different places in the network in a group, as if they belonged to the same Local Area Network.  Applications at home could include the ability to power on or off lights and/or different types of equipment (e.g. TVs) for the entire house or specific areas regardless of how the building is wired.

At a broader level this could allow logical grouping of multiple houses in a  community or multiple communities at city level.  For example,  if multiple houses in an HOA-administered location are equipped with solar panels and produce a surplus of electricity, it could first be consumed by other houses in this community.  Or customers equipped with solar panels can elect other users to benefit from a surplus (e.g. family members), allowing them to decrease their energy costs.

  • Virtual Private Network (VPN)

This allows connection to independent networks and make them look as one. It is widely used to connect remote workers or branch offices to their company network, even though they use different physical network.  In our utility world, this would mean that a company with multiple sites scattered around the country or the globe could have one global power network, managing its energy resources and affecting them as needed, transparently, over an infrastructure composed of many different energy producers and distributors.

In a country where the power landscape is composed of so many players (at all levels, including production, transmission and distribution) with different standards across the various states, all the above may sound like mission impossible.  But the Internet has done it, with the contribution of a global ecosystem including service providers, equipment manufacturers, software editors (and the open source community).  Maybe all we need is a similar vision of a Global Interconnected Power Network relying on a similar set of standards?  The enabling technology is certainly there and could even converge between the power and information worlds as evidenced by progress in Power Line Communications and Broadband over Power Lines.

ICT networks and networking technologies are used extensively today in utilities ensuring that critical information and data relative to the operation of said utilities are securely and reliably transmitted.  The adoption of smart grid technologies, the development of renewables and the ever-growing demand for energy continues to drive sales of sophisticated networking equipment.  And that makes me happy too.  But more could be done.  There are similarities between information networks and power networks that could be exploited to create new services and add more value to network users.  The Internet is clearly ahead, but a Global Power Network inspired by the former and using similar architecture principles could have the potential to equally affect people’s lives and change the way we produce and consume energy.  And, who knows, there may be energy in the cloud tomorrow. 😉

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