How Does the Industry Create True Interoperability?

By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor

Interoperability has become a smart grid buzzword, and the industry loves thinking that engineers and technology can be made to get along. But how will interoperability impact utilities as they seek to create a more intelligent grid? Are guidelines and standards positive, or will they stifle implementation? How does the industry create a true and positive interoperability hotspot?

Utilities are making progress toward that interoperability, according to experts from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Southern California Edison (SCE) and American Electric Power (AEP) who spoke at a Dec. 7 luncheon panel titled “Utility Discussion on Value” at Clasma’s Grid-Interop conference in Phoenix.

There is, however, more travel ahead before the industry officially reaches that interoperable destination.

Utilities Take Steps

“Our engagement in the smart grid is about as long as anyone’s,” said Terry Oliver, BPA’s chief technology information officer, speaking specifically about BPA’s work on making smart grid technology more coherent and connected. “With interoperability, the challenge for us is to understand and apply standards–and to bring our substations up to snuff in that particular area.”

Doug Kim, director of advanced technology in the transmission and distribution business unit at SCE discussed SCE’s interoperability work, focusing on the forces behind the utility’s smart grid projects.

Labeling them “intersections of major drivers,” Kim cited ambitious legislative and regulatory policies and market demand created by consumers during the past few years. These pushed SCE to look into interoperabilityand its related standards.

Kim said a number of items new to the grid mix at SCE have added momentum to this interoperability effort: an increase in renewables, storage, 3.6 million AMI meters deployed (on the way to 5 million by the end of next year), goals around demand response and growing customer interest in plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs). The intermittent, immediate and changing nature of these items calls out for utilities and the technology they employ to be more cooperative and connected, he said.

“When you put all of these things together,” Kim said, “interoperability is absolutely essential.”

Kim listed three reasons SCE is on board with interoperability:

1. Interoperability fosters more innovation;
2. Interoperability helps a utility manage cost; and,
3. Interoperability helps mitigate risk.

George Bjelovuk, AEP’s managing director of enterprise technology, brought up similar motivating factors for AEP’s interest in interoperability.

“AEP has been involved in the interoperability standards base for almost 20 years,” he said.

Noting that the utility had one of the first IEC 61850 certifications in the U.S., Bjelovuk emphasized the utility’s history with standards and a look to a more compatible, integrated grid future. The need for integrated interoperability and related standards became obvious when AEP began deploying smart meters, he said. The utility wanted 5.5 million meters in place by 2015, but it would take years to install them all, creating a technology gap.

“We knew that the technology involved in meter No. 1 would be fundamentally different than in meter No. 5 million. So we built some abstractions into the system,” he said.

Business Case for Interoperability

Making meter No. 1 and meter No. 5 million get along makes good financial sense for utilities. It’s less time-consuming, involves fewer glitches and errors and allows legacy systems to interconnect without having to replace much of the grid.

Interoperability’s business case is important for utility stakeholders, regulators and the average consumers, said the panelists.

For Oliver and BPA, though, the business case is less about meters and more about synchrophasors. [Editor’s note: For more on synchrophasors, see the feature on Page 62 in this issue.] It’s really about integrating synchrophasor data. To make a needs-based case, new smart grid technology like synchrophasors must bring more to the table.

“It’s a tear-down-walls proposition,” Oliver said. “If synchrophasors can be used only as they have historically to look back and say, “˜oh that’s what happened,’ they’re not an effective business case.”

Looking forward and using interoperability standards to help spread synchrophasor data across daily operations can make a business case for both synchrophasors and interoperability. The business case for interoperability is often about building a case for other technology. That spreading use of synchrophasor data Oliver envisions requires interoperability with multiple systems.

Kim agreed that interoperability’s business case can help make the business case for technology, but that complication is difficult to explain to regulators, and benefits, at this stage, are difficult to quantify.

All the difficulties, however, haven’t stopped SCE’s growing investment in smart grid technologies.

“We are making $1.6 billion of capital investment today on just smart meters,” Kim said. “And we’re proposing another billion dollars of investment over the next three years, including upgrading legacy systems. The point is: The technology and the system are becoming more dynamic, but also more volatile.”

Mitigating the volatility risk is where interoperability thrives in all smart grid business case scenarios, including SCE’s.

“We have to make these systems play together better,” Kim said. “We’re looking for more options to choose from, which interoperability will help us get to.”

Business case No. 1, making technology play nicely together, can help mitigate that risk factor and connect legacy systems. Risk also may be reduced by creating interoperability standards–a playbook for every utility. That utility interoperability playbook also may save cash by letting a utility move forward with an off-the-shelf system that it doesn’t have to build from scratch.

“The availability of interoperability standards and data models already vetted is a cost savings with our deployment,” said AEP’s Bjelovuk. “We can accelerate the pace of the deployments at a lower cost working with things that have been down before, having established processes and procedures. We’ve done what we can to take risk out of the process.”

Bob Saint, principal distribution engineer with the NRECA, said that established standards, systems and models are a great help for smaller utilities, municipalities and cooperatives that simply cannot afford to make these systems work together on their own.

“Standards make the case for smaller utilities because they don’t have the money to create these systems from scratch,” he said. “They rely on what’s been done and proven. For them, standardized interoperability is quite important.”

Standards Development and Utility Participation

After utilities move toward interoperability and build their cases, how does the industry convince them to tell those involved exactly what they need from standards?

The panel suggested cooperation.

Bjelovuk put the emphasis on showing deliverables, which could entice utility participation. He said, however, that the finite number of utility experts in the field are already stretched thin, engaged in other areas of smart grid development.

“So, one challenge is liaison relationships rather than duplicative involvement,” he said.

Kim agreed, adding that utilities always wish to “be ahead of the curve and be engaged.”

Oliver brought up that utilities don’t need to be involved in every stage.

“It’s not always necessary for a utility to be engaged in developing a standard,” he said. “There are some we simply accept, but we need to be able to see them coming.”

He said that collaboration between organizations can help, even going so far as defining which areas where utility input is absolutely necessary.

Saint said that the key could be to have a hierarchy identifying where utility input in standards is most important, adding that small utilities have a large need for standards but may not have the budget or ability to help as much as they would like.

“Involvement and knowledge are both important, but time is precious,” he said. “In the rural electric sector, there are very few of us dedicated full-time to distribution utility standards. Those few of us who can afford to do so have a great responsibility to represent the needs of our sector.”

In the end, technological interoperability, it seems, will depend on utility, association and regulator interoperability–everyone involved needs to talk more, listen more and work together to create that true interoperability hotspot.

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