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Distributed energy resources offer global cities new challenges and new benefits

row of gray electric meters

May 29, 2018

Cities around the world are facing change at an unprecedented rate, much faster than previous generations.  This remarkable growth has placed significant stress on infrastructure, housing, public safety and healthcare. While these challenges are critical, they also all require energy and with it, a secure energy grid.

“Cities run on ideas and electricity,” said Ken Boyce, principal engineer director, Energy and Power Technologies, UL, “and both allow a city to leverage all the promise of smart city technology.”

However, innovation never occurs in a vacuum. By solving one problem, we might be creating another.  While a smarter grid enables the use of new power technologies and can reduce stress factors on a city grid, a smarter grid also exposes us to new challenges including cyber-attacks.

The good and the bad

Energy production is changing from a centralized grid with a large centralized power plant, typically coal, nuclear or hydro, to one made up of more distributed energy resources—wind, solar or natural gas. Localized energy storage assets are also evolving the grid and energy infrastructure.

In the long run, this migration is good for the power grid as it allows energy resources to deploy on an as-needed basis. Distributed generation supports the delivery of clean, reliable power to customers while reducing electricity loss along transmission and distribution lines.

Additionally, the use of new technologies is making the electrical grid smarter by allowing a two-way flow of electricity and information which is capable of monitoring everything, from power plants to individual appliances. The smart grid capitalizes on the benefits of distributed computing and communications to deliver real-time information that can be used to balance supply and demand.

Contrarily though, distributed energy, in its current form, can also place significant stresses on the grid.  The limited and somewhat unpredictable nature of renewable energy production and the need to balance dynamic supply and demand, are challenging. Energy variances can lead to damaging voltage spikes as well as blackouts.

Cybersecurity concerns

New technologies often create other, new, unintended consequences.  While a smarter grid enables the use of new power technologies and reduces stress factors on a city grid, a smarter grid also exposes us to risks such as cyber-attacks.

Boyce explained, “Achieving many of these new energy capabilities requires more intelligent,  connected devices. However, anything connected to the internet, wired or wireless, has a  vulnerability.”  Cyber-attacks on the gird have already happened – the energy domain is the most attacked segment in infrastructure - and are expected to occur with more frequency in the future.

Almost all our critical infrastructure is dependent on electricity and losing electrical power can cause massive, amplified implications for cities. The pragmatic solution rests with continued collaboration between government agencies, equipment manufacturers, utility providers and industry experts in assessing and addressing vulnerabilities.

Mitigating risks

While efforts continue at the European Union, U.S. national and similar levels, engaging city leaders in proactively planning for these events needs more attention.  Gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges, developing a mitigation strategy and leveraging the rapidly evolving technical foundation can help cities better gain the benefits and limit the risks of these new technologies.

“There’s an overarching theme where we have to design, develop and integrate with a mindset of minimizing the risks associated with cyber-attacks,” Boyce said. “It will require constant vigilance. We can never let our guard down because however secure we are today, that may change tomorrow. Moreover, now is the time for cross-functional collaboration to build a new grid that delivers the benefits of new technology, but is also robust and hardened.”

To hear more about the opportunities and challenges afforded by the new energy grid, watch the flash talk from Karen Wiegert and Ken Boyce, “Cities, Energy and Security,” at the 2018 Chicago Forum.