Is the Smart Grid Secure, Safe, and Private?

Upgrading the power grid opens up new concerns

18 November 2013

Image: iStockphoto

The smart grid is not just the modernization of one part of the power system, but of the entire infrastructure, from fuel source to smarter homes. A smart meter—or sensor node—for example, is a digital upgrade to the decades old mechanical meters used in homes and businesses. Some smart meters use wireless technologies that transmit radio frequencies (RF) to provide two-way secure communication of the aggregate data on the electricity usage to the electric company.

This means electric companies will no longer need to send out meter readers monthly because customers will be able to retrieve their usage information hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly and adjust it accordingly rather than waiting for the bill to arrive.

But this process has raised several concerns among consumers, which I will try to answer.

Cybersecurity threats can cause disruptions in the flow of power and other problems if cyber intruders send computer signals to the electronic controls used in some electric generation and transmission infrastructures. The electric power industry takes cybersecurity threats very seriously. In fact, electric companies must meet mandatory cybersecurity standards that require them to implement training programs, address physical security, and formulate plans for how they will recovery from such attacks.

As the smart grid is built, electric companies are incorporating cybersecurity protections into both the grid architecture and the new smart grid technologies. The electric power industry is working closely with vendors, manufacturers, and government agencies to ensure that the smart grid is secure. These measures will also help to ensure that customer data remains protected from cybersecurity threats.

The RF exposure levels from smart meters are far below the levels permitted by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which sets health standards for RF exposure based on extensive review of biological and health literature, and various scientific studies.

Based on this information, including a request by the California State Assembly for a study on potential health impacts from smart meters that was conducted by the California Council on Science and Technology, the FCC did not find any causation, correlations, or health impacts. RF exposure in homes due to smart meters is likely to be minuscule compared to RF exposure to such items as cellphones, microwave ovens, baby monitors, wireless routers, televisions, and laptops, which most of us already have in our homes.

According to the Electric Power Research Institute, the “relatively weak” strength of the RF signals generated by smart meters means that any impact of RF exposure would be minimal—similar to the levels of the exposure from televisions and radios.

In fact, smart meters typically broadcast their signal for less than a minute at a time and generally less than 15 minutes each day. The communication is usually from outside the customer’s home, so exposure to radio waves is minimal. In addition, the electric panel and wall behind the meter actually block much of the radio signal from entering the house.

RF is measured in units of microwatts per square centimeter. A microwatt is very small—it’s one-millionth of a watt. When held against your ear, a cellphone’s RF signal would be 1000 to 5000 microwatts per square centimeter. Standing just about one meter from a microwave oven, the RF signal would be 50 to 200 microwatts per square centimeter. Standing 3 meters from a smart meter, the RF signal would be 4 microwatts per square centimeter.

Customer concerns are of vital importance. The bottom line is that security cannot be added to a system as an afterthought. We need to start at the very beginning of any microgrid project and consider privacy and security in all design criteria. Strategic consideration of these issues will make a huge difference in the confidence and protection that the overall system provides. This is necessary whether the design effort is focusing on silicon chips, network components, end-user devices, the architecture, or the system as whole.

In our work at the IEEE Control Systems Society’s Technical Committee on Smart Grids, we have proposed and tested several different layers of technologies that monitor and support the privacy of customer information. Security technologies are employed for traffic analyzers, signal analyzers, and agents that monitor voltage, frequency, current (along with their rates of changes), and user behavior. Each component is secured independently and locally so the security precautions cannot be reverse engineered.

This is not a hierarchical system that can be destroyed or taken down. If one or two layers fail, the entire system does not fail. It’s essentially a self-reconfiguring, self-healing architecture. If anybody attacks it or tries to compromise one part of it, the system reconfigures to not only protect itself but also to localize and fend off such attacks.

This article is the fifth in a series on “Modernizing the Grid.” The next and final post will discuss the vision for the future of the smart grid and next steps. Follow us @IEEEInstituteFacebook, or sign up for our E-newsletter to get notified of upcoming posts.

Massoud_Amin Photo: Massoud Amin


Massoud Amin is an IEEE senior member and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Technological Leadership Institute, in Minneapolis, where he is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering. He is chair of the IEEE Control Systems Society’s Technical Committee on Smart Grids, and serves as chairman of the IEEE Smart Grid Newsletter.


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