The Internet of Things Brings a Web of Promises and Perils to the Smart Grid, Experts Say

The innocuous microwave on a shelf in a laboratory at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Wash., is anything but ordinary.

“Weird,” is how Penny McKenzie, a cybersecurity engineer at the laboratory, describes the device.

The microwave arrived at PNNL with the capability to be controlled through a smart speaker connected to the internet, a connection McKenzie and her colleagues declined when they plugged it into the wall.

“We have an energy measurement sensor connected to the microwave and at certain times of the day, the energy will spike up really high,” McKenzie said. “We are looking at the network communications and it is constantly trying to [connect to the internet].”

McKenzie runs the Internet of Things Common Operating Environment (IoTCOE) at PNNL. The recently established lab focuses on solving current and future challenges in the cybersecurity of connected devices. The microwave is one of several dozen household devices McKenzie and her colleagues are researching in a growing list of things that can connect to the internet and the electric power grid.

PNNL scientists and engineers research energy and security issues, so they are well aware that Internet of Things (IoT) combined with technologies such as 5G telecommunications and artificial intelligence (AI) are ushering in an era of fine-grained insight and control over infrastructure from smart microwaves to the entire electric power grid.

“With a profusion of connected smart devices, you can gain a lot more insight quickly because you are making more measurements at a much higher resolution than you ever could before,” said Bill Pike, a senior research scientist at PNNL. “You can spot trends and issues very early and act quickly at a very local level to increase efficiency or mitigate risks.”