Digital Circuit Brakers
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- Nov 30, 2019 5:57 pm GMT
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In a recent article for Vox, energy and climate change journalist David Roberts makes a case for optimism with regards to our grids going green. You may be asking yourself what’s got old David so excited? Three words: digital circuit breakers.
First off, he points out correctly, that old fashioned circuit breakers can be dangerous: “they’re slow enough that they still allow lots of short circuits and arc flashes, which can destroy property and even kill people. “Each year in the United States, arcing faults are responsible for starting more than 28,000 home fires,” says the non-profit Electrical Safety Foundation International, “killing and injuring hundreds of people, and causing over $700 million in property damage.”’ Digital switches on the other hand can “meter power, dynamically control amperage based on load, and prevent surges and faults by specifying instantaneous, short-time, and long-time trip settings”.
However, David is most concerned with the carbon cutting potential of digital switches. The devices will better monitor energy flow and needs, seamlessly responding to needs and cutting back when possible. Digital switches are prohibitively expensive right now, but like technology, they’ll eventually get cheaper. “Computer power,” says David, “which is always getting cheaper, will help determine how to maintain the same energy services with less labor and material, which are almost always getting more expensive. All analog systems will eventually go digital.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with David about any of this, but I feel like he conveniently leaves out some of the complications associated with the adoption of new switches and other digital utility tools. Namely, security risks. The more advanced a utility’s grid, the larger its attack surface becomes. Smart meters, for example, provide great benefits to utilities, customers, and the environment. They allow customers to take control of their energy consumption, raise reliability, enhance safety monitoring, and greatly facilitate demand response programs through increased data exchange. However, each unit contains the customer’s confidential information, making them targets for cyber criminals and sinister foreign actors.
Of course, such risks can be mitigated by scaling up security measures. Utility security officers have learned to emphasize segmentation and credentials, and they’ve been pretty successful if the rarity of reported incidents is any indication.
I’m happy utility issues and advances are getting coverage in the popular press—I just wish there was more nuance.