The Internet of Energy: delivering safe, smart energy in the smart city era

Last updated: 27 September 2019

We hear and talk a lot about smart cities, and with good reason. They represent the realisation of the IoT’s promise – a network of connected devices helping everyone living inside to enjoy better convenience, security and, ultimately, a better quality of life.

One element of the smart city that has been developing rapidly in recent times is energy. So, we wanted to look at its role today and how it will evolve in the years ahead.

It goes without saying that the efficient use of energy is critical to life in a city. It’s something we often take for granted, but our increasing demand for energy means that improving how we manage it is essential. Not only is demand in our homes going up as the population grows (according to the UN, almost a third of the world’s population will live in urban settlements by 2030) and the number of devices we use gets larger, but other fundamental aspects of daily life are changing our relationship with energy.

Take electric vehicles for instance. They’re seen as a key part of our fight against climate change – helping to reduce carbon emissions. But if everyone who owns a vehicle today switched to an electric alternative, and then we all plugged them in to charge after getting home at 6pm, the resulting surge would be much for our current infrastructure to handle. So smart IoT technology is helping to solve problems like these, as well as giving consumers greater insight and control over how much energy they consume.

Many consumers around the world will already be familiar with the concept of smart meters. The devices are designed to communicate directly between your home’s electricity or gas meter and your energy supplier. This real-time connection means that consumers can see exactly how much energy they are consuming, and the resulting cost. So whether it’s turning the heating up on a cold day, or simply switching lights off that aren’t being used, consumers can take an informed decision on what to use and how they can behave more cost-efficiently. At the same time, Utilities can offer accurate billing, according to real-time energy consumption, and carefully control and balance demand and supply.

The renewed focus on energy efficiency and the potentially devastating effects of climate change (as debated at the UN climate talks in Poland) have also led to increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind or wave power. That’s good news for the quality of the air we breathe, but does pose challenges from its unpredictable nature. It was relatively easy to understand how much energy a fossil fuel power station would output and when – but that’s much harder to plan when you’re relying on mother nature. And this is not just an industrial concern. With a big push to integrate renewable energy generation into consumer homes (see Tesla’s ambitious plan to replace conventional roof tiles with solar panels), it could soon be the case that many more of us depend on our own energy generation, with potential surplus energy to either store or sell back into the grid.

This complexity requires a clever solution, and that’s where smart grids come into play. By connecting every smart meter, every solar panel, every electric vehicle and every other energy-related assets, a smart grid can analyze countless data points to help manage the flow of energy – available and needed – at the right time, to the right places, to ultimately run sustainable and efficient smart grids.

Of course, energy grids are a critical part of national infrastructure and keeping them safe is essential. Building and connecting smart grids in this way requires robust security that can protect against hacking or cyber-attacks – whether they’re designed to steal user data, tamper with energy consumption and billing or directly attack the infrastructure itself. We spoke to Michael John, Senior Security Consultant for the European Network for Cyber Security (ENCS). He highlighted the need for connected devices and metering data protection, to prevent malicious access which could result into grid instability: “In electromobility, we have to make sure charging stations don’t overload the grid. Utilities are preparing for this with ‘smart charging’, which adapts the rate based on availability and time of day. But that has to be secure: there’s a risk devices could be used to attack the grid or to attack customers.”

We’re part of the security effort, providing strong digital identities for energy connected assets, steadfast access credentials and security containers, plus leading-edge stakeholder authentication and encryption technology. These make sure that all data received is from a legitimate source while protecting it from tampering and fraud at all points.

Guillaume Djourabtchi, IoT Services Marketing Director, speaking about securing the grid, at the European Utility Week, in Vienna (Nov 2018)

But the smart energy ecosystem is still evolving, and all stakeholders will have to push forward and collaborate to ensure its future security and stability. And with smart grids built to last for several years, security lifecycle management is a particular concern. Michael John recognizes the scale of the challenge but remains optimistic, saying: “Years ago, security wasn’t high on the agenda. But everyone now has a Chief Security Officer and project leads who take care of security for new projects. The challenge is that legacy systems weren’t interconnected, automation has to be introduced over time and new processes need to be in place to protect systems that were never designed to be secure.

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