Throughout all of the talks about Smart Grid systems - the buzzword for the concept of a power grid that can both send electricity and communicate two ways instead of one - there is one piece that most fascinates me: What is going to be done with the enormous amount of data that is collected on a system using this grid? The implications for this massive new data collection practice are many.

A New IT Infrastructure

First, some utility companies are not even able to process, analyze or use at all the vast majority of data that comes in through their recently upgraded Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI. Utility companies that have spent a lot of, dare I say, energy, building up their AMI have not yet completed a back-end that is capable of doing anything new or interesting with all of this data. In the case of one utility company in particular, their AMI was able to report back large amount of information on everything that was happening in a given home every 15 minutes. However the back-end IT infrastructure was only able to process and analyze that information once per day - how innovative or advanced is that really?

MDMs, or Meter Data Management Systems, are the IT back-end that is supposed to be able to take in that data and do something unique with it - whether that be allowing a consumer instant online access to their energy usage, real-time utility pricing or using that data to predict and prepare for power outages or upcoming power surges. These back-ends have not been invested in anywhere near as heavily as the grid structure, and we won't be able to realize the full potential of a smart grid until the IT infrastructure catches up.

Security and Safety of Data/Energy

More data always means more capacity for wrong-doing. IT advances are always a double-edged sword, and smart grid solutions are no different. Not only will power companies have potentially more direct control over appliances in a home (something that could be used to turn off internet or other communication services without the permission of knowledge of the homeowner) but the data that is reported on one's energy usage needs to be protected from misuse. There needs to be some serious discussion on who will have access to this data and how it is stored. If data is not properly protected, it could be possible to figure out, for example, whether someone is away from home and thus open up people's homes to similar vulnerabilities that have become criticisms of location-based social networking services like Foursquare, Gowalla, and now Facebook Places.

New Uses for New Data

One of the promising aspects of smart grids - aside from their obvious energy-related improvements - is that the data is able to be collected can be used in dozens of deployments across industries. Neighborhood associations could be able to run contests to see who uses the least energy or the data can be exported to emergency management agencies or utility companies to help predict when a power outage is going to happen so they can deploy assets accordingly. Data could be used to help educate people about their energy usage and environmental impact and even product designers could benefit from being able to understand how people use their products.  These are just the tips of the iceberg, however. In our user-created content  culture filled with innovators we are likely to see an enormous surge in applications, websites, and other services that will be able to take this new data and use it in interesting ways that we haven't even thought of yet.

Craig Cavanaugh, Director of Meter Services for Siemens Energy gives The Energy Collective a brief overview of how data from Smart Meters can be used in emergency management and public safety.

As tends to be my style, I feel as thougth I have brought up more questions than I have answered. But I think that asking questions about any new technology (coming from a technologist) is important, and our new energy and power infrastructure are no different. By examining a technology closely we can be assured that when we start deploying it in real-life we are making the best use of this new innovation that we can.