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What is the smart grid made of? Technology, communication, and actors

For some, the smart grid is a way to achieve policy goals: promoting energy efficiency, reducing peak demand, increasing utility operating efficiency, integrating renewable resources, and enhancing electric vehicle adoption.

For me it also includes consumer benefits: information to help people understand their energy usage, pricing options that help people save money by shifting usage to off-peak times or by using prepayment, and automated “set-and-forget” controls to make all of this convenient.

But all these goals and benefits won’t just pop out of thin air. They must be supported by a technical infrastructure that works well from end-to-end.

The U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology puts a lot of effort into defining what the smart grid physically looks like and how it operates. Recently NIST released the final version of its Smart Grid Framework 2.0.

One picture of the Smart Grid shows the participants — which NIST calls “actors” — in the system. It also shows how a whole new set of communication flows is layered upon the flow of electricity.

How actors interact in different smart grid domains through secure communication. Source: NIST. (Click to enlarge.)

The next picture zooms in on the first to show the various communications networks and devices that are connected to the smart grid — from generator plant control systems to smart meters.

Conceptual reference diagram for smart grid information networks. Source: NIST. (Click to enlarge.)

Of course, whenever one device talks to another over a network (such as a smart meter communicating with a thermostat) they must speak a common language — a standard. Conveniently, NIST’s new framework includes a list of adopted standards as well as others under consideration.

More than 40 important standards are listed — including three that are particularly important for realizing consumer benefits, as well as utility peak reduction benefits:

  • Home Area Network Device Communications and Information Model (OpenHAN)
  • Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR)
  • Open Automated Data Exchange (OpenADE)

Need help sorting this out? Last fall (when NIST issued the draft Smart Grid Framework) SmartGridWatch provided a quick primer on these three standards.

NIST’s final framework is a great reference for anyone who’s helping to build the smart grid.