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Lack of standards could stymie smart grid

Federal government will have to carefully balance distribution of stimulus funds for smart-grid tech with need to establish grid standards, regulators and industry reps tell Congress.

WASHINGTON--The Department of Energy will be pushing out $4.5 billion for smart-grid investments as part of the federal government's economic stimulus plan, but unless smart-grid standards are developed quickly, the government risks wasting its money on soon-obsolete technologies that could be incompatible with one another, regulators and industry representatives warned Congress Tuesday.

Integrating information technology into the nation's electric grids could enable consumers to monitor and reduce their electric usage and help electric companies locate and respond to power outages, among other benefits, said Fred Butler, a commissioner on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

However, Butler told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, "if we do not do this correctly, we come in danger of not coming even close to meeting those aspirations."

Congress may want to consider withholding money for smart-grid demonstration projects or the matching grants promised in the stimulus package until fuller standards are put in place, one witness at the hearing said. The Congress may also want to consider taking action to expand the federal government's authority to enforce smart-grid standards, others said.

Committee Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said government agencies and the private sector "should be proceeding with (smart grid) demonstration projects but at the same time need to be accelerating the standards process."

Bingaman said he was unsure at this point whether his committee would consider granting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission more enforcement authority over smart-grid standards.

Successfully integrating interoperable smart-grid technology into the electric grid will require standards on a number of issues, including security, reliability, data sharing, and privacy. Standards could be developed for a number of other facets of the smart grid as well, such as charging standards for electric hybrid vehicles and open architecture standards.

President Barack Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in Denver. Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET Networks

There are so many standards to consider, said Patrick Gallagher, deputy director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), that his organization's primary responsibility is simply prioritizing the order in which standards should be developed.

"What's desperately needed is an overall roadmap by which we can decide which standards affect regulatory concerns or technical challenges and need to be addressed right away," he said.

The NIST is currently developing such a roadmap, Gallagher said, and hopes to have initial drafts of its priorities by this summer. The NIST's priorities will not impede private industry from taking the lead in developing standards--so long as they are flexible and technology neutral--Gallagher said. He nevertheless expressed concern that the private sector's interest in moving forward as quickly as possible could make it difficult for all companies and organizations to reach a consensus on standards.

FERC Commissioner Suedeen Kelly said the standards development process should not delay the smart-grid demonstration projects the stimulus funds are intended for.

"The demonstration project and the funding of it is a real opportunity to advance (smart-grid development)," she said. "What we anticipate seeing is a real demonstration of the benefits...(Currently), it's unclear how the interfaces will work with consumers."

However, Evan Gaddis, the president and CEO of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, said that the matching funds in the stimulus package should be withheld until standards are in place--standards that his association and other industry groups can develop quickly.

"I realize like everybody else we've got to get jobs going," he said, "If you tell us start writing these standards, we will get them written quickly. If we get grid standards in place before we start building, we will save money.