Smart Grids Hit the Standards Trail

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The smart grid, according to all estimates, as well as common sense, is going to be huge. It also is hugely complex-even intimidating. It permeates almost everywhere and is comprised of many unique tasks, from reporting usage wirelessly to managing the core of the power distribution infrastructure. Each of these tasks is made up of a tremendous number of smaller routines. There is lots of opportunity for vendors to supply hardware, software and innovation, which is the greatest of all commodities.


A strong regime of standards will be necessary for this to evolve in an efficient and organized manner. Earth2Tech's Katie Fehrenbacher, in her look at the current status of the standards landscape on the smart grid, appears to make a distinction between "truly open" standards and initiatives that somehow fall short of that, though not eschewing standards entirely. For instance, she writes that the PhyNet-Grid, from Arch Rock, is truly open, while other companies-including the ubiquitous Cisco-are using Internet protocol (IP), but whose products aren't "entirely based on open standards." Clearly, the question upon which much rides is how the special needs of the smart grid will be handled.

The bottom line is that the smart grid simply is so specialized that it will spin is own web of standards-and quite a web it will be. This week, for instance, two alliances-the ZigBee Alliance and the SunSpec Alliance-said they are working together on standards for renewable energy and microgrid management. The groups will use the ZigBee Smart Energy version 2.0 standard as the basis for integrating solar-powered microgrids into the larger smart grid.


Last week, smartmeters reported on a Maravedis study, Smart Grids and the New Utility, that noted the importance of such frameworks. Said the smartmeters report:


The report noted that open standards and interoperability, as opposed to proprietary technologies, are critical to facilitate effective, widespread use of the Smart Grid, as well as better enabling the Grid to integrate new and innovative devices and energy applications of the future. Other findings include recommendations to agree on new levels of standards protocols, especially across utilities and to establish new modes of management.


In May, EE Times covered Connectivity Week, an industry event in San Jose which, in part, outlined the state of standards for smart grid. The article says that IEEE P2030, which was established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in March of 2009, has begun laying out as many as 70 interface standards on smart grid topics. The overall framework could be done by March 2011. Separately, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, which was set by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), could help put key standards pieces in place by June 2011. NIST has 16 Priority Action Plan (PAP) groups, which are described in the story.


Organizations in the sector are advised to remember the old technology joke: A standard covering such and such a process is a good thing -- that's why they created so many. The implication is that slapping a standards label on a specification isn't the same as creating a truly interoperable approach that can be used by many different parties to perform a task in a highly reliable and repeatable way.


These organizations also should remember that this is a vital time in the development of the smart grid. The massive initiative could develop smoothly-or bog down in a sea of competing protocols and approaches that can't easily communicate with each other and, thus, can't fully get the job done. Investment could be impactedif it becomes apparent that standards are not being seriously developed and big companies are filling the vacuum with their favored approach in an attempt to gain control. It's happened before.