5Qs with Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, The Edgar L. and Harold H. Buttner Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, UC Berkeley

Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli
Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli
The Edgar L. and Harold H. Buttner Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences
By UC Berkeley | 20 July 2017

Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli is the Edgar L. and Harold H. Buttner Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley.

He is an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and an Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Fellow, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and authored over 880 academic papers and 19 books, and created 2 patents. He was a co-founder of Cadence and Synopsys, the two leading companies in the area of Electronic Design Automation, and consulted for most of the major companies in US, Europe and Japan. He earned the IEEE/RSE Maxwell Award for “for groundbreaking contributions that have had an exceptional impact on the development of electronics and electrical engineering or related fields”.

1. How has the Internet of Things (IoT) helped advance energy systems and efficiency?

As the Internet of Things (IoT) grows, an ever-increasing number of low-cost devices will be available that are capable of measuring physical quantities, computing, communicating and acting on the environment. The use of these devices will allow continuous monitoring and control in many industrial domains. Monitoring and controlling are essential to guarantee not only the correct functioning of our infrastructure (energy and water distribution, transportation, manufacturing) but also the optimisation of the use of scarce resources. 

The energy sector has been one of the first adopters of IoT technology with the introduction of smart meters. Smart meters were introduced as a way to measure real time energy consumption and to facilitate customer billing. However, it became soon apparent that the data collected by smart meters could be aggregated and analysed to provide an invaluable input to energy distribution and generation companies for planning their operation. 

Recently, smart meters have been evolving to include wireless technology not only to facilitate data transmission but also to connect to home appliances such as washing machines, refrigerators, stoves and heating systems, thus providing a possible solution to remote control and optimise energy consumption and operation in general. The availability of smart devices will then make it possible to plan the operation of manufacturing plants and homes to optimise energy use in concert with distribution and generation companies. 

In addition, IoT devices can be deployed along the distribution network to detect failures and to operate preventive maintenance, thus resulting in important savings and efficiency gains. This use of IoT technology for the energy sector will require not only the deployment and interconnection of IoT devices but also the introduction of distributed and centralised data analytics capabilities. Furthermore, IoT devices will be essential in controlling the use and storage of distributed renewable energy resources. 

2. How will smart technologies transform the utilities industry? 

While IoT and data analytics offer a unique opportunity to energy companies, it also creates an entry point for IT companies in the energy management domain. We are witnessing a turf battle of this sort in the automotive sector where companies such as Google, Apple, and Uber are competing with established automotive companies such as Ford, GM, BMW, and Mercedes to become the reference companies in autonomous cars. 

Utility companies must then become fluent in IoT, artificial intelligence (AI) and data analytics, as these technologies will play a fundamental role in the future of any industrial sector and in particular, in the energy sector. Intermittent, renewable energy sources will have to be inserted in the utility grid with increased problems in grid stability, as well as in pricing and energy distribution efficiency. The design of the distribution network of the future cannot ignore the tradeoffs between centralised and distributed architectures. Micro and nano grids will be essential to optimise the use of renewable sources, and to provide resilience when disruptive events occur. This will require significant investments not only in technology, but also in talent attraction and education. 

3. Energy storage is often touted as the solution to the intermittency of renewables. How else can storage impact the overall energy system? 

Energy storage is needed when energy demand falls below the energy that is generated. Careful planning can balance demand and response so that energy storage needs are minimised. However, renewable energy sources availability is largely not under human control. Hence, energy storage in this case is a necessity. The availability of high-capacity, high-efficiency energy storage devices makes managing the network easier and provides better pricing control for utility companies. The growth of electrical vehicles (EVs) creates interesting energy storage mechanism for utility companies. In fact, during recharge, the batteries in the automobiles can be used as auxiliary storage devices to balance the network, thus providing an efficient solution for temporary storage and favourable pricing for the users. Energy storage research and innovation is one of the most vibrant, especially in an area where advances are traditionally slow to come.

4. Cybersecurity is an increasing concern with smart technology. What are the key considerations as the energy sector becomes increasingly digitalised?

Unfortunately, the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that control the power distribution infrastructure have not been designed and deployed with security concerns in mind. Hence, it is relatively easy to gain access to it with hacking methods. Indeed, the December 2015 cyber attacks in Ukraine penetrated the SCADA systems of energy utility companies and incapacitated them. More worrisome yet is the June 2017 cyber attack that hit websites of Ukrainian organisations, including banks, ministries, newspapers and electricity firms, as well as other locations in France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, UK, and the US. Furthermore, security for IoT devices is almost non-existent.  The October 2016 cyber attack was carried out via hacking into IoT devices, and left the services of major companies, as the New York Times, Netflix and Twitter temporarily unavailable.

Digitalisation per se is not synonymous of increased vulnerability, but it may become a problem if security is not considered a top priority when designing architectures and software systems for energy companies. The main problem is actually fixing the legacy systems so that security is guaranteed at least at a minimum level. Task forces should be empowered to assess the security level of energy companies and to recommend appropriate remedial actions. Security is an issue at the highest levels of government and nationwide strategies must be adopted. A report by the National Academies of the United States will be released shortly that recommends a series of actions to improve the resiliency of the energy network to disruptive events, including malicious code infections. Energy sector companies should establish a worldwide strategy and action plans to contain the cyber risks.

5. What are your thoughts on the SIEW 2017 theme, “Rethinking Energy; Navigating Change”?*

The theme covers major concerns for the future of the energy sector at both company and government levels. The recent initiatives of the US Government aimed at revamping coal-based energy production cannot stop the momentum of renewables. Clean energy installations broke new records worldwide in 2016, and wind and solar are seeing twice as much funding as fossil fuels, according to new data released by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). Indeed, solar power is becoming the cheapest form of new electricity and it would be difficult to make coal or other traditional energy resources appealing again from an investment point of view. However, it will take years for solar and other renewables to supplant natural gas, oil and coal as the principal energy generation sources, given the large energy generation installations today. If we factor in the issues of global warming and pollution, there is no doubt that the investments in renewables will have to be sustained with vigour and no hesitation. 


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