Adopting Open Standards for Advanced Metering Infrastructure

By Eric Miller, Itron

Who knew 20 years ago that many of us would abandon TV for the Internet, searching for everything from poison ivy treatments to real-time basketball scores to viewing the real-time eruption of a raging Hawaiian volcano spewing molten lava. To get this information, we all, without really realizing it, had to learn a new communications protocol.

Internet users have adopted the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) open standard, which allows us to reach all those Internet sites regardless of the brand of computer or software that transported us there. That open standard has allowed the uses of the Internet to expand as far as our imagination will let them.

Today, the energy industry is considering a new generation of open standards. As global energy supplies tighten and costs continue to rise, the utility industry is looking at advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), open standards and interoperability to help control energy expenditures and improve conservation efforts. The industry and customer drivers for AMI include operating a smarter transmission and distribution grid and providing demand and price response to all customers.

ANSI (American National Standards Institute) is expected to vote soon on a new standard called C12.22 that, much like HTTP, provides an application layer standard for network communications. C12.22 is designed to transport standard data formats from electricity meters across any physical network medium.

In the world of meter data collection, utilities are faced with many vendor systems that have been built with their own protocol/language. This makes integration between products from different vendors a complicated, expensive and often manual task. An open standard to improve integration and interoperability should be aimed predominately at the application level and allow for any communication medium to be used. It should be suitable for the data requirements and unique needs of the utility and allow for application growth not envisioned today.

It took four years for the ANSI working group to hammer out the C.12.22 protocol, with concerted effort on the part of utilities and vendors. Here is how it works:

  • Each endpoint in a C12.22-compliant AMI system, including the utility, is assigned an address. Meter data is communicated over the network in a manner similar to sending an e-mail to the utility.
  • Rather than e-mails, the ANSI standard deals with data packets. The sending device on the AMI network creates a data packet, and the AMI network delivers the data packet.
  • Sending and receiving devices don’t need to know or specify exactly how the AMI network delivers the data packet–whether by use of cellular communications or Wi-Fi or power line communications or RF. The contents of the data packet are not of concern to the AMI network.

The C12.22 standard makes full provision for system interoperability, and its development was meter data centric. It is agnostic to the communications technology chosen.

This kind of flexibility promises utilities freedom to pursue whatever communication method is best at the time and for the meter location, but that is really just the beginning. Since it’s an open protocol, the utility could decide to use the AMI system for other non-electric metering communications as well, such as gas or water meter readings. No one needs to change hardware to make this work. Leaving the communications flexible (in the same way we can reach the web through Wi-Fi, cable, DSL and cellular), makes the information accessible wherever we are without changing how we ask for it.

The industry and customer drivers for AMI include demand/price response, a culture of conservation, full deregulation and operating a smarter grid. To be realized, the standard chosen protocol should be aimed predominately at the application level and allow for any communication medium to be used. It should be suitable for the utility’s data requirements and unique needs, and allow for application growth not envisioned today.

I believe that to achieve adoption, we need clear public policy and crisp regulatory guidelines, and we need to keep the transport layer open–this is where the most innovation is expected in the next few years.

A multifunctional, feature-rich utility communication system for metering, energy information, grid monitoring and optimizing energy efficiency and demand response is coming, and will change how we think about using energy.

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Eric Miller is the vice president of Itron Software Solutions.

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