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Time short to agree on smart-grid standards

The next phase of smart-grid standards is due to start next year but vendors pushing their own home networking options threatens to slow the process, says a NIST official.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--The first crack at vital smart-grid technical standards are due next year and some companies are already gumming up the works by pushing their own networking technology, according to the government official shepherding the process.

The need to hammer out interoperability standards is urgent and the task is extremely complex, said George Arnold, the national coordinator for smart-grid interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who gave a presentation at a seminar organized by the IEEE here on Saturday. There will eventually be hundreds of standards covering many areas, from cybersecurity to how meters talk to plug-in cars.

"We've never tried to anything of this magnitude before," Arnold said. "It's more complicated than the Internet and Internet standards have been evolving for over 20 years."

By contrast, smart-grid standards need to be agreed on quickly, with the next phase of a multiyear process due next to begin year. Technical interoperability through standards is supposed to safeguard various players, including consumers and utilities, against technical obsolescence and wasted investment. About $8.1 billion of federal, state, and industry money will be spent on upgrading the electricity grid in the next three years.

The smart grid touches a number of different devices in a home and on the electricity grid. There's a push to establish the technical blueprints and standards certification by late next year. Electric Power Research Institute

In the case of smart appliances, Arnold said he is ruffling feathers by pushing networking companies to sort out a dizzying number of options.

With two-way meters installed in people's homes, a meter can send a message that higher electricity prices have gone into effect. For example, during a hot summer day when the air conditioning load on the grid is high, utilities may look to "shed load" and have some of its customers volunteer to lower their consumption.

An appliance, such as a dishwasher or clothes dryer, equipped with a chip should be able to receive the message from the meter and go into energy-saving mode. A "smart" appliance could receive the message and perhaps do a job in an hour instead of half an hour to use less power. That handshake between the appliance and meter needs to be standardized to make sure that consumers can buy products from different suppliers.

The problem is that there are multiple methods for passing energy-related information around the home and the companies involved are pushing their own technology, creating a "mess," said Arnold. There are wireless protocols Zigbee and Wi-Fi and at least six powerline communication protocols that use a home's wiring to move data.

"We're trying to accelerate the normal process and gravitate to a few market solutions, which normally takes years," he said after his talk. "Proponents of various communications standards all have a role but at the end of the day, there has to be some assurances for consumers."

Whirlpool last month announced that it would make 1 million "smart energy" clothes dryers by the end of 2011. That commitment, however, was contingent on standards being cooked by the end of 2010 and changes to regulations to reward consumers, appliances makers, and utilities to shave peak-time electricity use.

General Electric's appliance division, too, is making a complete line of demand response appliances.

But appliance manufacturers will be reluctant to support multiple protocols in their networking chips because that could raise the price of these grid-aware white goods.

Internet as a model
The situation with home-area networking is just one instance playing out among the dozens of technology providers, utilities, regulators, and standards bodies. Conflict over standards is common in the tech industry because betting on a failed standard can be costly. But the situation is more complex in the smart grid given the number of groups with a stake in the process.

NIST was given authority over smart-grid standards in 2007 and in September released a framework and roadmap for interoperability. (Click for PDF.) Arnold said that there has been strong industry support for the effort. But given that a number of smart-grid trials are already under way, NIST is focusing on accelerating the process, which will result in a testing and certification next year.

In some ways, NIST is looking at the Internet standards as a model for how the process should be operated. Last week, there was an event called Grid-Interop where a governing panel was created specifically to focus on interoperability.

"Over time this organization (called the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel) is going to become something like the Internet architecture board," said Arnold. "It's not being set up to develop standards. It's really being set up to develop the overall architecture and select which standards should be used."

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf is on the governing board of the panel, he added.

In its framework document, NIST identified eight priority areas where there is a lack of standards, which includes networking communications, security, and plug-in vehicles. But it is relying heavily on existing standards, including international standards, wherever it can to expedite the process, Arnold said.

That means coordinating among several standards organizations because the smart grid touches so many pieces of hardware and software. For example, to standardize plug-in electric vehicles requires coordination among upwards of 10 different organizations to cover national electric safety codes and standards for car batteries, networking, energy storage, and smart meters.

One of the principles that NIST is pursuing is that standards-based products should be backward-compatible since standards will continue to evolve for many years, Arnold said. He added that communications protocols over time should be based on the Internet Protocol.