April 19, 2010

The 4th Port and Robbery Planr. Fact or fiction?

This post is not about a Port nor about Port. In stead, it is about the mysterious Fourth Port. Most people don't even know that it exists. I can assure you though that the fourth port, which I will hereafter abbreviate as P4, is real and is going to become extremely important for the Dutch and perhaps the entire European energy market.

The Dutch energy market has been privatized several years ago, meaning that energy production (electricity & gas) has become competitive. Consumers can choose what provider to buy energy from. Recently (2008), the Dutch government has also decided that energy production and energy distribution should be done by separate companies. That's why Dutch energy providers are being split into two parts: a free (as in freedom), private company that only provides energy services, and a public company that takes care of the distribution of that energy to end consumers. So the government stays in control of the infrastructure for energy distribution, but no longer the commercial activities being deployed on it.

The Netherlands currently have 8 regional grid operators for distributing electricity and 9 for distributing gas to end consumers. The public grid ops build and maintain the distribution infrastructure, including the installation and maintenance of metering equipment at end consumer addresses (homes, industry). All energy providers can provide their product (gas or electricity) via these public grids. The end consumer should normally only deal with the energy provider. They will get a bill for consumed energy by the provider, not the operator. But since the grid ops own the metering equipment, the consequence of all this is that the grid ops must facilitate the energy providers in their need for data on energy consumption.

It boils down to this: grid ops distribute and measure, energy providers produce and sell to end consumers (like your self).

Are you with me so far? Here's what P4 is for: providing a central facility for obtaining metering data and controlling end consumer connections to the grids. Ultimately, this is a single, national facility. Use cases include:
  • read individual consumption status
  • batch read multiple statuses
  • enable and disable individual connection
All these operations should be made available through a standard web service (SOAP). So, P4 is a web service. Needless to say, this web service should be really really secure. We don't want to create an easy facility for the evil minded to black us out, do we?  In the thieving business for instance, being able to predict when you are not at home (by mining your consumption data) or even have control over darkness in your street (switch off connections) could be very helpful. Imagine the plethora of evil Google Maps mash-ups (looking like my sketch below) you will get that allow you to zoom in to street level, select a block of houses and click the "black out" button (you will have to do the manical laughter yourself). However convenient this may look to you, this is not what P4 is intended for.

In spite of these security and privacy related issues, the Dutch energy grids are evolving towards the smart grids that are envisioned by the government. At the moment, P4 mostly consists of a number of standards specifications and has been partly implemented by some of the grid ops. Several 10-thousands of smart meters have been rolled out in the Netherlands so far, but they can't be queried centrally through P4 yet because of the above mentioned privacy issues that have yet to be resolved.
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