As The Internet Of Energy Accelerates, Cyber Protection Is Critical



By: Peter Kelly-Detwiler & Richard E. Harrison

Approximately 80,000 new homes are built in California each year. About 15,000 of them include solar panels. 

That is about to change in a big way.

This month the California Building Commission okayed the California Energy Commission’s requirement that all new homes built after 2020 include solar panels. 

This will boost the state’s total annual residential installations – new and existing homes – to roughly 180,000. (Given that California currently boasts more than 880,000 solar installations, it should easily pass the one million mark even before the new mandate kicks in.)

Though perhaps not moving as quickly, other states are following suit as our nation enters a distributed energy future, often referred to as the Internet of Energy. 

This future is rapidly taking shape. And that shape is…a duck

Utilities vs Solar Industry

Maximum solar energy output is between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. At times, that output can be so great in sunny states like California and Hawaii that other generating resources must be backed off. In fact, in the California wholesale power market, prices occasionally move into negative territory. 

To illustrate this dynamic, the California Independent System Operator gave birth to the Duck Curve (Figure 1). This graph shows the timing disparity between peak demand – which usually occurs after sunset – and the production of renewable energy. 

Figure 1

Concerned about the solar industry’s assault on their profit margins, utilities are understandably fighting back. Tactics include reducing credits for solar customers, charging or raising connection charges, even redefining the daily peak period. For example, San Diego utility SDG&E changed its hours for peak pricing in time of use from 11 a.m.–6 p.m. to 4 p.m.–9 p.m. (Figure 2). 

Figure 2

Solar panel users can combat some of these measures by installing batteries on premise. These units capture DC energy produced by solar panels and store it as DC power for later use (although it must be first converted to AC power, which is why batteries come with inverters) e.g., nighttime, cloudy days, power outages, etc. 

SunRun – the nation’s leading installer of residential solar – recently reported that 20% of new California customers chose to combine batteries with new solar installations. In southern California, 60% of customers chose that combination. In Hawaii, there is no choice: homeowners connected to the grid must include energy storage capability when adding solar panels as they are not allowed to export back to the grid until after the sun sets.

These developments have occurred relatively recently. After all, the solar industry is essentially less than a decade old. And yet the Duck Curve dynamic has already migrated to markets where one would not expect it to fly. This year New England grid operators witnessed a day in April with enough solar production that net demand was actually greater at 3 a.m. than 3 p.m. (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Cybersecurity Must Keep Pace

Unfortunately, as solar energy and distributed energy have taken off, appropriate cybersecurity has been either ignored or inadequately addressed. 

That needs to change immediately.

Communications capabilities must be hardened across the burgeoning Internet of Energy. New resiliency capabilities must be created. New cyber standards and intercommunications protocols must be established. Measures must be taken to assess the risks of hackers hijacking distributed resources to destabilize the grid and to prioritize our responses. 

Perhaps the first step is to address the issue of energy storage. Batteries represent a rapidly growing and potentially powerful destabilizing threat if hacked. At the same time, they can offer a powerful and resilient first line of defense if and when the grid goes down. 

At Dispersive, we’re already working with some ISOs to strengthen the connective tissues that tie utility-scale generating assets to the grid. We offer similar connectivity solutions to the distributed and growing Internet of Energy.

We look forward to helping that ecosystem develop in a manner that is secure, cost-effective, and reliable.

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