NIST Tackles Smart Grid Interoperability to Avoid a "Betamax vs. VHS" Dilemma

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The constant problem with new technology is that you can never know when it will become outmoded. One particularly fast way for technology to become outmoded is a shift to a new format or standard that is incompatible with your device. A classic example of this problem happened at the dawn of the video recorder, when the Betamax format lost out to the VHS format, leaving many consumers with largely useless devices. A more recent example came with the shift to high-definition DVDs, when the Blu-Ray format quickly sunk the competing HD-DVD format.

Utilities are now investing billions of dollars in smart meters and other Smart Grid technologies, and they face the same problem: Will today's smart meters be incompatible with tomorrow's Smart Grid system? Could the massive investment being made today suddenly become a bad investment tomorrow? If so, it could mean big trouble for regulated utilities, as they may not be able to recover their investment from their customers.

To address this issue, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 gave the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) the primary responsibility of ensuring the interoperability of Smart Grid devices and system. More specifically, NIST, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is to coordinate the development of a framework of protocols and standards for information management that, taken together, will achieve Smart Grid interoperability. DOE has provided NIST with $10 million in Recovery Act funds to carry out this responsibility.

But what exactly is interoperability? Most users of today's high-tech devices have some experience with it, or the lack of it. When it works, interoperability is evident in the "plug and play" features of most of today's computer peripherals … just plug the devices into your computer and it will "figure out" how to communicate with them. But try that with an older computer, and you might find that your old operating system can't run the drivers for the new device, leaving you high and dry.

NIST intends to achieve interoperability for the Smart Grid, allowing not only today's smart meters and associated utility equipment to work well with the future Smart Grid, but also a new wave of smart appliances, electrified vehicles, and renewable energy sources. To achieve that goal, NIST has developed a three-phase plan: first, engage stakeholders in a participatory public process to identify existing standards that can serve Smart Grid interoperability and to identify and prioritize gaps in existing standards; second, to create a formal public-private partnership to drive long-term progress; and third, to develop and implement a framework for testing and certification.

Meeting the first-phase goal of engaging stakeholders required NIST to first get a handle on the wide range of technologies encompassed in the Smart Grid, dividing it into seven domains. Four of these domains follow the power delivery chain, from bulk generation, to transmission, to distribution, and finally to the customer. The remaining three domains include markets, operations, and service providers.

For each domain, NIST is drawing on a wide range of stakeholders, including utility companies, regulators, appliance companies, consumer electronics companies, and so on, with 22 stakeholder groups in all. All of these groups need to reach consensus on standards and protocols needed within their domain and needed for their domain to work well with other domains. They also need to reach consensus on such cross-cutting issues as cyber security, testing, and certification.

To address all these challenges, NIST has formed the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, which has a governing board but is also divided into committees, working groups, and teams that develop priority action plans. NIST established the panel in November 2009, and to help the exchange of information among panel members and other technical experts, NIST also created a collaborative wiki site, called the NIST Smart Grid Collaboration Site.

So far, NIST has develop and published a framework and roadmap to guide the development of the interoperable standards, has developed and published guidelines for Smart Grid cyber security, and has established a Smart Grid Advisory Committee. NIST has also identified five foundational sets of standards for Smart Grid interoperability that are ready for consideration by state and federal legislators. Along the way, NIST and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy held an online forum to gather public input on the consumer interface to the Smart Grid.

In early 2011, NIST anticipates publishing standards related to plug-in electric vehicles, as well as a framework for testing and certification. NIST also plans to publish an updated version of its interoperability framework.