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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Bob Heile

Dr. Bob Heile is chair of the IEEE 802.15 Working Group on Wireless Personal Area Network and is chairman of the ZigBee Alliance. He also served as co-chair of the IEEE 2030 Work Group Task Force 3.

In this interview, Bob Heile discusses the technology and consumer-psychology challenges of the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) rollout.

Question: How much progress has there been in the Smart Meter rollout nationwide?

Although the vast majority of smart meters deployed so far in the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) program remain "dark," some markets — notably Texas — are making good progress. The public utility commission there is working with transmission and distribution companies and retail electric providers to turn on those dark meters and to activate "opt-in" programs that give consumers better control of their electricity usage.

Question: How can we gauge the success of these early-adopter programs?

Home Area Networks (HANs) and Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) are still relatively new and the usage data they provide is only beginning to roll in. This information will provide critical intelligence on how real, live people react to real, live expanded capabilities and it will help enormously in shaping strategies for future, wider-scale deployments.

The statistics being gathered will help the industry determine which specific benefits and marketing approaches will entice consumers to embrace HANS and HEMS. They will also help utilities decide how quickly to roll out dynamic pricing models and, perhaps most importantly, they'll give us information on how to avoid customer revolt.

So far, the problem of conveying the value of AMI to consumers in meaningful ways has not been solved. This nascent stage of the rollout is sure to yield insights that will help us move closer to such a solution.

Question: What consumer behavior is of most interest to utilities?

Utilities want to know if consumers will take advantage of real-time pricing/time-of-use pricing if it is offered. They want to know if consumer interest will fade over time. Consumer reaction to the "set it and forget it" capability offered in HAN devices is another example. (This functionality means the HAN can be programmed to automatically react in certain ways to utility price signals.) Early-adopter data should tell us how much this feature will foster consumer enthusiasm. The biggest question may be how many consumers will make a habit of using HEMS – something almost like brushing their teeth. The AMI deployment is a question of psychology just as much as technology.

Question: What are some of the key unresolved technology questions of AMI?

It is useful to recognize that AMI is both inward facing – the collection and distribution of data inside a home or enterprise; and, outward facing – the collection and distribution of data by the utility to and from the meter.

Speaking first of the inward-facing challenges, many HAN devices such as smart thermostats are likely to stay in the building. But appliances such as refrigerators could move with the family to another utility’s service area. The mobility of appliances such as refrigerators reveals the need for standard communications interfaces across multi-vendor home networking devices and advanced metering solutions.

HANs could use a broad range of potential networking technologies: Bluetooth, power-line communication (PLC), ZigBee, and Wi-Fi, for example. It is important to identify how each technology best serves the overall solution. It is equally important to think of "best performance" in the context of different HAN use cases. The future HANs could be a mix of technologies. At this point, there are no clear answers, and no clear agreement on how all these elements will be used.

Question: How about the outward-facing aspect of AMI?

To accommodate present and future applications, utilities need to forecast utility-to-meter communications requirements. Among the basic performance parameters are bandwidth, response times and latency requirements. Utilities may also wish to support remote testing, maintenance, monitoring, and upgrade services from the utility to smart meters.

Regarding the outward-facing aspect, there are fewer technology choices. IEEE 802.15.4g is being developed to satisfy outward-facing challenges. It describes the utility-to-meter communications link of the ZigBee Smart Energy (ZSE) Profile, which is the leading standard for smart metering and the HAN. ZSE provides the capability needed for the utility to interact in a defined way, through the meter, with the consumer and the devices in the home for status monitoring and load control – which will be especially needed in the emerging era of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Question: You mentioned electric vehicle (EVs) and plug-in hybrids. What role will they play in the Smart Grid?

EVs are the elephant in the Smart Grid living room. They will undoubtedly accelerate the urgency for and deployment of substantially greater capabilities for load management and demand response.

In most cases, today's electricity distribution systems are designed to operate at near capacity. Utilities don't typically design power grids with 50 percent headroom; margins of 10 percent to 15 percent are common. As a result, for a small neighborhood served by a single feeder, adding a single electric vehicle can have a significant impact – not to mention adding three or four or a dozen. In an unmanaged metering infrastructure, consumers plugging in several electric vehicles, each charging at six kilowatt hours, could quickly consume, or even exceed, the total available capacity of the local transformer or feeder, with not-so-pleasant consequences.

Question: Are there any shining examples of an AMI design architecture?

A good example of how all this might come together can be seen in Southern California Edison's implementation its SmartConnect metering system.

The utility has constructed a multi-tiered infrastructure that consists of: A cellular-based wide-area network, with two-way narrowband 900 MHz radio-frequency wireless communications to the meters, and, between meter and home, ZigBee Smart Energy standards-based home-area communications at 2.4 GHz RF using IEEE 802.15.4. Although customers view usage over the Web, the basic data is collected and delivered to the utility over its wide area network. That ensures the accuracy, security, privacy and integrity of the data, and yet makes the results easily available to the consumer, anywhere.

More than 100 utilities have turned to SCE for best practices on smart meters, synchrophasor measurement, electric-vehicle and renewables integration, energy storage and other Smart Grid technologies.

Question: In conclusion, could you summarize the state of AMI and Smart Grid from both the technology and consumer perspectives?

From the technology perspective, standards such as IEEE 802.15.4™, IEEE 802.11™, IEEE 1901™ and IEEE 802.3™ are effectively providing the underlying communications capability to support the needed functionality and various gateway products that will allow seamless interworking among networking environments. Also, standards like IEEE 2030™ are providing the overall design blueprint for the grid architecture on both sides of the meter.

Our biggest challenge stems from the fact that "billing awareness" is a totally new concept for electricity consumption. That alone raises significant challenges beyond the domain of IEEE and other standards bodies. Consumer education and utility experience in these areas are sorely lacking, and the fear of change on both sides of the meter is significant. What is certainly unlikely to succeed is simply dropping in new technologies and pricing programs on consumers without sufficient education and buy-in. In fact, such a move is likely to backfire and result in greater resistance to Smart Grid rollout.

We also have to realize that the details of how change will play out are certain to vary from market to market. For example, Texas is a totally unregulated market. On the other hand, consumers deal with a regulated entity in California. This means that there is likely to be a great deal of local market customization with regard to how quickly programs are implemented and how they are initiated.

But people are people. What works with consumers in Texas, to large degree, is likely to work elsewhere. Consumer trends data from early-adopter markets is likely to be leveraged by utilities and public utility commissions in other markets. Their success in interpreting and acting upon that data will have strong bearing on how quickly the Smart Grid develops around the world.