Open protocols would allow utilities to take advantage of new technology
Twenty years ago, few of us were surfing the Internet. Today we’re looking for everything there, from heartburn treatments to the rings of Saturn. In a short decade, without really knowing it, most of us embraced the “http” (hyper text transfer protocol) open protocol standard that allows us to reach all those Internet sites regardless of the computer brand name or software that transports us there.
As energy costs continue to rise worldwide, the utility industry is looking at Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and open standards and interoperability. AMI will help to control energy expenditures and improve conservation efforts. But getting there, and getting everyone to sign off on open standards, is as difficult as it must have been to start the World Wide Web.
New Standard for Network Communications
To understand why utilities are keenly interested in open protocol communications, consider the process and ease of sending e-mails from your laptop or smart phone. Internet providers depend on the use of open protocols to provide e-mail service. E-mails are sent and received as long as e-mail addresses are valid, mail boxes are not full, and communication paths are functional. Most e-mail users have the option of choosing among several Internet providers and several technologies, from dial-up to cellular to broadband, depending mostly on the cost, speed and mobility. The e-mail addresses are in a common format, and the protocols call for the e-mail to be carried by communication carriers without changing the e-mail.
The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is expected to publish a new standard by the end of 2006 (C.12-22.20XX) that provides an application layer standard for network communications, designed to transport C.12.19 standard data tables in electric metering over any physical medium. Thus the open protocol laid out in the ANSI C.12.22 standard provides the same opportunity for meter communications over networks.
Open Protocol Enables Integration
In the world of collecting meter data, 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 and expensive task.
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. This is how it works:
â– Each endpoint will have an address and AMI systems will communicate meter data in a manner similar to sending an e-mail to the utility, which will also have an address.
â– Rather than e-mails, the ANSI standard deals with data packets. The sending device on an AMI network compliant with the new network standard creates a data packet, and the AMI network delivers the data packet. Exactly how the AMI network delivers the data packet-whether by use of cellular communications or Wi-Fi or power line communications or RF-is not of concern to the receiver of the data packet, and what’s in the data packet is not of concern to the AMI network.
â– The ANSI C.12.22 standard allows for opening up the communication layer (physical layer) in the AMI network-while maintaining a standard network addressability and data security. The separation of these two functions is the critical component of the ANSI network standard, and should provide flexibility for utilities in current deployments and extend into future changes.
“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,” said Arun Sehgal, product line manager for Itron’s AMI hardware. “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. The beauty of this is that no one needs to change hardware to make this work.”
While providing many benefits, installing AMI system-wide is a major investment, on par with building a power plant or acquiring another utility.
If we go back to the e-mail analogy, as long as the data packet meets the requirements of the new network standard, it doesn’t matter what data is in the packet.
The communication link inside the home may allow utilities to partner with other organizations to send information to customers, such as weather information, current and forecasted prices of energy, and/or to receive information from customer homes and businesses, such as a customer request to pay their utility bill. A utility or third party might offer to alert customers to receive a message when their monthly bill reaches a threshold level. To support this service, customers might be able to purchase devices at local hardware stores that regularly receive updates on their energy and natural gas usage directly from the electricity meter.
The devices could be capable of calculating customer electric and gas bills on an ongoing basis, and automatically adjust how appliances operate to prevent bills from exceeding a certain dollar amount per month. Devices might display customer loads (how much energy was used within a set period of time) to allow customers to turn electronic equipment on and off to manage their bills.
Driving AMI Open Standards
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 data requirements and unique needs of the utility and allow for application growth not envisioned today.
The cost to install AMI system-wide, while providing many benefits to utilities and customers, is a major investment, on par with building a power plant or the acquisition of another utility. The new ANSI network standard and realization of open protocols for AMI should provide reassurance for utilities, regulators and consumer advocates that investment in AMI will provide benefits above and beyond the costs, and allow utilities to take advantage of new technology when it becomes available.
The standard C12.22 is an ANSI standard that makes full provision for system interoperability, and its development was meter data centric. It achieves the goal of being agnostic to the communications technology chosen, said Sehgal. “To achieve adoption, we need clear public policy and crisp regulatory guidelines, including answers to meter ownership issues and rate recovery issues. We need to keep the transport layer open-this is where the most innovation is expected in the next few years.” he said. “Interoperability is key to AMI’s success.”
Christina Kelly writes on energy issues for electricity, gas and water and works as a marketing/communications specialist at Itron. She spent more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter for West Coast newspapers and as a magazine columnist.She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.