Smarter Meters, Smarter Grid, Smarter Energy?

As the march of technological progress continues, cutting-edge solutions are being put in place to help us use our energy resources in ways that are both “smarter” and more sustainable. Using digital technology to detect and react to local changes in energy usage, electrical grid infrastructure around the world is undergoing substantial changes to prepare for rises in demand as well as potential disruptions from worsening climate change.

Many governmental institutions have been working to bring “smart grids” from vision to reality so that their citizens will be able to waste less power while gaining a greater understanding of how far their energy dollars really go. The proliferation of smart meters allows for finer control of electricity usage by end users.

Thousands or millions of such devices acting in concert connect to the larger smart grid system, enhancing the efficiency and the reliability of the electric infrastructure in a whole city or across the nation. Energy companies have been deploying smart meters in great numbers, bringing formerly-analog metering technology into the 21st century.

Smart meters work by collecting data about electricity consumption and then forwarding this information to a central office for later analysis. To do so, they employ wireless technology and often leave security gaps that malefactors can exploit. These security weaknesses include inadequate password protection, the use of obsolete or weak encryption algorithms, and susceptibility to malware.

Intruders can amass databases containing customers’ individual, personal data, which can then be sold to marketing entities or even to criminals who wish to case out potential victims’ lifestyles in preparation for break-ins. The situation gets worse when we consider that many smart devices allow for the manipulation of elements of the electric grid. Hackers and cyber-terrorists could hijack parts of the system and shut down or otherwise interfere with the electricity supply, leading to inconvenience, property damage, injury, and even, in extreme cases, death.

The U.S. government is attempting to address these concerns through the provisions of the Energy Policy Modernization Act, passed in April, which contains guidelines for better security of the electric grid. Private researchers and industry groups are also endeavouring to gauge how serious the situation is and come up with ways of successfully addressing it. Some oppose the installation of smart meters and other related products because they feel that they’re a manifestation of Orwellian tendencies on the part of large utility firms and the authorities.

The debate over the proper ways of securing the smart grid are relevant to other aspects of life as well because of the growing acceptance of the “Internet of Things paradigm. Home automation appliances in particular face many of the same challenges as smart meters in enabling the interconnectivity of multiple pieces of hardware without compromising on security. As individuals turn their residences into smart homes and municipalities become smart cities, privacy and computer security themes will only become more relevant and important.

These gadgets have been getting more popular despite these issues because they promise to revolutionize the way we interact with the electric grid and enable us to save both energy and money. By closely examining usage patterns, suppliers can more precisely tailor output to satisfy demand at different times of day, days of the week, and seasons of the year. At the same time, individual consumers can get a fine breakdown of how much energy they’re using and for what purposes, so they’re able to take charge of their own consumption habits. In the event of blackouts or equipment failures, smart grid technology could mean a swift restoration of normal service as those in charge of the system will have sophisticated tools at their disposal to address the circumstances.

Perhaps the most important factor coming from the use of smart meters would be its environmental benefits. Smart grids would be able to incorporate renewable energy sources like solar plants and wind farms and cut pollution from the energy sector as much as 30 percent by 2030. Energy companies will have to provide more security and reliability for smart meters in the near future in order to gain consumer trust. Smart meters and the smart grid could truly be revolutionary and completely change the way we use energy, if only our concerns were appeased.

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