The Smart Grid Primer: Standards Development

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Smart Grid Primer

This is the last article in The Smart Grid Primer ePaper series. For more on the smart grid, attend NTCA’s webcast on Wednesday, September 8, 2010.

Crucial to the smart grid ecosystem is the development of an open architecture defined by clear, accepted standards for interconnection, interoperability, performance and monitoring. These standards will provide a necessary foundation for an intelligent network and the many devices which will interface with the grid.

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) is intimately involved with the standards development process. “We need uniform ways of communicating for the smart grid network to be successful,” said Bob Saint, principal engineer at NRECA. “Electric cooperatives don’t have the staff or resources to customize solutions. We need a device that is plug-and-play, or as near plug-and-play as possible for a variety of network architectures.”

The U.S. Department of Commerce National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST), which started working on smart grid standards in 2007 when it was tasked to do so by the Energy Independence & Security Act, is spearheading national standards efforts. To carry out its mission, NIST received $15 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

The agency estimates that the smart grid will require hundreds of standards. NIST is facilitating the process, acting as a mediator between countless public and private organizations to unite their diverse interests and industries. Saint shared one anecdote whereby home area networking vendors, remote energy management systems and utility providers all define a time period differently. This is an important and basic input into the smart grid system and the lack of agreement speaks to the complexity and sheer size of the task.

NIST has developed a three-phase plan to tackle standards development. Phase one involved the identification of applicable standards, gaps in available standards and priorities for new standardization activities. In September 2009, the agency released the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, Release 1.0, a high-level reference model for the protocols and standards for managing information among smart grid devices and systems. The document identified 75 applicable existing standards and 16 high-priority gaps for which new or revised standards are needed.

In Phase 2, the agency established a formal public-private partnership to drive longer term progress. This included a more permanent governance structure called the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel. More than 1,600 individuals from 580 organizations will guide the ongoing development of standards. The Cyber Security Working Group was also convened. As of early August, the working group is preparing to issue a final draft of “Guidelines for Smart Grid Cyber Security.” Phase 3 will concern testing, certification and interoperability.

Privacy and security issues are at the forefront of any smart grid discussion. Smart meters will collect real-time information concerning a consumer’s energy use and relay this information over an IP network. Vendors want access to this information to market products and services directly to potential consumer and enterprise target markets. There are a lot of questions surrounding who “owns” the detailed energy usage data that smart meters will record and transmit, and under what circumstances third parties should be able to access that information. The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) is investigating privacy issues as a direction of the National Broadband Plan (NBP). NIST also is examining the privacy and security requirements for the billing and usage data that is gathered via smart meters.

Simultaneously, cybersecurity standards are under development. The smart grid will interconnect home appliances, PCs and countless other devices to the power and information grid, offering many portals for inadvertent and direct attacks and sabotage.

NIST has developed a clear-cut framework to tackle smart grid standards development but questions and confusion remain. The process has been rife with politics and differing opinions. This is not unlike the telecom standards ecosystem where consumer electronics manufacturers and broadband service providers are at odds. “Most proposed smart-grid standards are IP-based and describe themselves as ‘open,’ but on both sides of the meter the issues have been political as much as technical,” Saint said.

For instance, the U.S Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has clear jurisdiction over bulk power generation plants. The 2007 Energy Independence & Security Act also tasked FERC with approving the framework adopted by NIST. However, the state regulatory bodies, which oversee electric distribution systems, might object to this interference with their authority.

Developing smart grid standards will be a multiyear effort which, in some cases, will be never-ending as the requirements and the technology evolves. Despite the technological and political obstacles, standards are vital to ensure the resulting network is reliable, robust and future-proof. It is important for utility providers and their broadband partners to stay abreast of standards development and requirements as it will affect how the network is built, operated and maintained.

Now is the Time to Partner

The federal and state landscape is complex, and it will directly influence the pace, scope and direction of smart grid deployment. The U.S. Congress, DoE, FERC, NIST, FCC and state public utility commissions have influence and jurisdiction over pieces of the smart grid marketplace.

Modernizing the electric grid is a monumental undertaking which will require creativity and coordination. Capital investment is needed to build and maintain an interconnected information and electrical grid. Standards are needed to ensure an open architecture. Utility providers must change their business models and resolve their broadband needs. These are only a few of the major hurdles which stand between utility providers and ubiquitous smart grid deployment.

National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) CEO Vern Dosch leaves us with this thought: “I’ve heard a lot of talk that the smart grid is a fad, the latest buzz term. But this is not the case. Just as the PC and the Internet forever changed the way telcos do business, the smart grid will forever change the way utilities operate. The smart grid is just too important, from an environmental and cost efficiency perspective, not to be pursued. But the smart grid will fail if utilities do not effectively transmit the data from the home to a central access point.”

Rural utility and telecommunications providers share a commitment to providing the rural customer with top-notch service and cutting-edge technology. Despite their common goals, historically rural electric and broadband providers have been ill-inclined to work together. For the smart grid to blossom, rural electric and broadband providers need a fresh start and a new, creative approach to mutually constructing and maintaining this foundational partnership.

The broadband network is fundamental to all aspects of the smart grid and as such, rural electric providers and rural telcos are ideal partners in smart-grid ventures. There is no one-size-fits-all approach; what this partnership looks like will be different in every community. The smart grid ecosystem is still at its infancy, and now is the time to partner to develop a shared vision for the intelligent grid of the future.

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