Tech Insights

Digital Dilemma: Keeping Smart Grid Data Safe But Accessible

May 13, 2024 by Liam Critchley

Successful grid digitalization must overcome problems sharing necessary data while protecting privacy and security. This is the third part in a series examining technical challenges to grid digitalization in depth. 

Grid digitalization will bring many advantages in performance, integration of renewable energy systems, and better ability to meet consumer demands. However, automating and digitalizing the power grid relies on numerous factors coming together to build a unified ecosystem, and many technological challenges exist before smart grids can become the norm. 

Since distributed smart grids generate vast amounts of data, handling and protecting data is a major challenge. This issue spans controls, data, information for generation, transmission and distribution, smart meters, Internet of Things devices, distributed generation and storage, electric vehicles, and electricity markets.


Digitalized grids process and store huge amounts of data.

Digitalized grids process and store huge amounts of data. Image used courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


Such large datasets provide optimized power grid monitoring, control, and operation. Grid operators can use the data and analytics to better understand any issues within the grid and the IT networks.

However, much data is sensitive to consumers, so it needs to be private. When scaling large energy ecosystems from analog to digital, ensuring data privacy poses technical challenges.


What Data Is Shared?

In a digitally connected power grid, much data—including consumers’ personal information and sensitive company data—is stored within the digital ecosystem. Different parties need to access this data to provide services and optimal operational efficiencies. However, from a legal perspective, grid operators must balance vital access with privacy to ensure power grids can go digital without any time-consuming and expensive lawsuits. Additional challenges may arise in regions like Europe, where General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws exist and add complexity to how consumer data is handled.

On one hand, system operation data ensures the grid functions efficiently and can balance supply and demand while facilitating interactions between distribution and transmission operators. Digitalization offers real-time data management analysis and control to help transform system operations. Transferring grid operations to the digital world helps create higher visibility and transparency in power flows, loads, and connections at the distribution level.


Data and communication flow in a smart grid.

Data and communication flow in a smart grid. Image used courtesy of the Department of Energy


On the other hand, consumer-related data from smart meters is more sensitive and needs to be private. Smart meters facilitate precise billing, load profiling, real-time energy services, and accurate and efficient transactions. When the data is transferred to the digital domain, suppliers must ensure they and any third party requiring their customer’s data keep it protected. 

Many energy management systems are becoming centralized hubs in digital smart grids, with data harmonized from various sources. The protected data must stay protected, but it must also be left accessible to anyone who needs it within the wider energy ecosystem.


Data Protection Challenges in a Digitally Connected Ecosystem

Realizing a fully digitalized energy grid will rely on the interoperability between networks, systems, and operators within the grid ecosystem. Data privacy and security are potential digitalization barriers because they limit the types of interoperable solutions that can be installed. 

In handling customer data, service developers need to negotiate with the meter operators to discuss how to access metering data from existing data management systems. In many countries, multiple operators control metering, including small enterprises, transmission operators, distribution grid operators, and public organizations. It’s sometimes more difficult to access data from small entities than from large energy companies.

Another challenge is interfacing with existing data management systems holding the metering data. Many data protection protocol areas are still not standardized. To get automated access to the data, consumer consent management systems must be in place to identify the users’ metering points. The consumers must give consent so service providers can process end-user data.


Multiple people and entities can handle data from smart meters.

Multiple people and entities can handle data from smart meters. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


End users also need a high level of transparency toward data processing history. They should have control over who has accessed their personal data, which data was accessed, and why. In Europe, the ecosystem and companies within it must also conform to GDPR regulations, and DSOs need to understand which data is sharable and what needs to be kept private.

Ideally, public organizations should operate consent management systems to limit private companies' vested interests. Public companies also have wider access to publicly collected data. Public bodies should own any consent management tools in the energy sector. Public service organizations are used to working in consumers’ best interests regarding their data protection rights.

Many organizational barriers surround data ownership, storage, and sharing in the energy sector. Not many suitable data-sharing ecosystems exist, which limits the flow of information and collaboration between different parties and stakeholders in the energy industry. Legal and ethical frameworks and governance models for grid digitalization and data processing are also lacking. 

From the technical side, various factors influence smart metering interoperability. If customer consent mechanisms are not in place for energy data download and sharing services, operators may have limited use of the data. 

Also, many companies delegate different aspects of data handling, management, processing, and legalities to other entities. A disconnect can often exist between departments where data privacy protocols are not communicated well. This issue can be amplified from one entity to the entire energy ecosystem, showing the potential for data protection breaches in a fully digitalized grid. This vulnerability reveals the industry's need for more robust protocols and communication.


Balancing Grid Digitalization With Data Privacy

Digitalizing the power grid brings plenty of opportunities and benefits. It will offer highly detailed electricity consumption data and information about distributed energy resources and infrastructure.  However, verifications and security need to be in place to access the necessary data—regardless of whether it’s a government or private entity—and protecting privacy at all times will be critical when so many entities have potential access to huge swathes of data.

Part 4 examines legacy equipment and how to move to digitally compatible systems.