A Smart Grid is an Integrated & Interoperable Grid

By Steve Collier

Don’t miss Mark Siira’s upcoming important tutorial - Smart Grid Interoperability - Evolution of Standards Development.

Here’s why- The operation of the smart grid is dependent upon integration and interoperability of multitudes of diverse devices, communications networks, software applications, and data bases. This has been and continues to be a challenge. Mark will address this integration and operability challenge and discuss the development of IEEE standards that can help meet the challenge.

This knotty problem is ironic since the developed countries’ longstanding legacy electric grids are fully integrated and interoperable. No matter where one lives in a given country, or what brand of electric device, appliance, equipment they purchase or from what supplier (“mix and match”) it will “plug and play” right “out of the box”, anywhere on the grid. This is because there are generally accepted, systemwide standards for nominal voltage ratings, defined AC frequency, standard operating tolerances, and standard physical structures and connectors, software applications and data formats.

The largest and most complex and smartest grid in existence, the Internet, also prevails and prospers at least in part, if not primarily, because of essentially universal interoperability based upon an industry standard communications protocols (e.g., TCP/IP), wireless networking formats (wi-fi, Bluetooth) and universal connections. No matter which brand or model of which computers, routers, mobile devices or other Internet appliances are purchased or from which electronics store, they are “plug and play” right “out of the box” regardless of the “mix and match”.

Unfortunately, the this is a continuing challenge for the smart grid which will be severely hampered by lack of integration and interoperability. One cannot integrate and fully interoperate devices, communications protocols, networking formats, software applications or data without considerable inconvenience, expense, and reduced functionality resulting from the limitations of external adapters, interfaces, converters, translators. Various brands, even different vintages within the same brand of sensors, actuators, telecommunications protocols, software applications and data formats cannot be mixed and matched. This has for many years been the bane of the smart grid’s major precursor, AMR/AMI. Despite lip service to integration and interoperability over decades of effort and millions of dollars of invested in interfaces and conversions, AMR/AMI is nowhere near plug and play, mix and match, out of the box. Realization of the optimum smart grid is similarly bound in this Gordian Knot.

The reasons are obvious. Few vendors welcome having to invest extra capital, or incur higher O&M costs, or complicate their user support, or reveal their technologies by being universally integratable and interoperable. Even fewer want to be too easy to replace in part or in whole by other vendors’ products. Many must see it to be a competitive (noncompetitive?) advantage for their customer to have to invest in wholesale system replacement in order to buy their new and better product line or buy a better product from another vendor. Finally, utilities are not sufficiently disciplined in their procurement practices and policies to require a contractual commitment from a successful vendor to provide and maintain full integration and interoperability with other vendors’ products. And they are easily shipwrecked by the siren song, “This is cheaper or better than other vendors’ products.

The smart grid is way too important to allow this. An economic, efficient, reliable, resilient, secure, safe, sustainable, observable, controllable electric grid is a key foundation of quality of life and productivity of business. This is especially true given the transition of the electric grid away from the traditional bulk electric system model to a much more complex and distributed one. Distributed energy resources (DER) and non-wires alternatives (NWA) are the wave of the future and offer unprecedented benefits. The new grid edge must be a sharp edge, a smart grid, not dulled by proprietary or vested interests. Hopefully, the inevitable convergence of the electric grid with the IoT will go a long way to meeting this challenge.

Until the hardware, software and data for operating a “smart grid” are fully integratable and interoperable, the full development of a smart grid will be compromised and limited. Be sure to follow IEEE Smart Grid for the best information and insight on interoperability and integration of the smart grid.

I highly recommend Mark’s upcoming tutorial on interoperability in which he will address the development of integration and interoperability of a smart grid.


 For a downloadable copy of February 2020 eNewsletter which includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center.

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Steve Collier is a well-known and highly regarded expert on energy / telecommunications / information technologies and an electric utility industry thought and practice leader who consults, writes, speaks and teaches on the development of modern, intelligent electric grids (“smart grid”). Steve has worked as a professional, executive, board member for energy, telecommunications, technology, and consulting firms in the US and abroad, including Power Technologies, Inc, Sandia National Laboratory, C H Guernsey & Co, Cap Rock Electric Cooperative, the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative and Milsoft Utility Solutions. He is a career long member of IEEE and has served as a member of the board of directors of the IEEE Industry Application Society, Chair of the IEEE IAS Rural Electric Power Committee, the IEEE Smart Grid Education and Marketing Committees and member of the IEEE Smart Grid Operations and Steering Committees.

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