Standardizing the Battery Storage Communications Infrastructure

By James Mater

As distributed solar continues to penetrate both wholesale and distribution power grids and battery storage technologies become more cost effective, the drive to install batteries to provide off-setting services to the grid will only increase.

The most significant advantages of adding battery resources to grid operations is that they are dispatchable and they can be used for multiple purposes from load management to generation to reliability and stability services to the grid. In other words, battery storage greatly increases the flexibility in managing grid operations.

Optimizing the value of storage both at the wholesale and distribution level requires the ability to scale installations beyond traditional utility design and installation models. It requires access to a large number of distributed, customer-owned storage assets that can include standalone battery systems or battery systems coupled with solar PV installations and EV batteries.

Fortunately, the industry is hard at work standardizing the communications infrastructure for accommodating these types of generation and load management resources. But there are some significant obstacles to successfully adopting the communications infrastructure required to integrate the range of battery resources into grid operations.

The focus of this article is on three of the major barriers to adopting and implementing standardized messaging platforms for DER communications.

Great Vendors Deliver – Their Own Proprietary Solutions

There is nothing wrong with a vendor’s proprietary solution to a grid problem. In fact, the innovation and competition between vendors continually produces new and better solutions for the electric grid. But the greatest benefit comes when the innovation and investment by vendors is on unique capabilities to do things better, faster and cheaper. Does creating a maintaining a messaging communications infrastructure add that much value when standards for such an infrastructure can be used instead?

From a vendor perspective, making sure that all their products interoperate seamlessly seems like a value-add. But how much value is added if the vendors also need to create custom interfaces to communicate with an eco-system of other vendor’s devices? Certainly, in lieu of accepted and deployed standards for such communications, a vendor is adding value by developing an eco-system of interoperable products. But this takes resources away from improving the other aspects of their solutions that are unique – e.g., performance, quality, ease of use, algorithms or logic, etc.

The value in standardized communications platforms like the cellular networks, the internet, wifi networks, etc., is that they provide a platform for innovation. And on top of these transport layer platforms, applications such as the world-wide web, HTML, Linux standardize the way messages are formed, delivered and interpreted, freeing vendors to innovate in even more profound ways. And in the utility industry, messaging protocols such as DNP3, IEC 61850 and others, though slow to catch on, are the beginnings of the standardization of messaging to DER and other grid resources.

If each vendor is inventing their own messaging communications protocol then not only is there not a common platform to innovate on, but significant resources, time and costs go into maintaining each eco-system.

Until Utilities and regulators insist on the use of messaging communications standards for all aspects of DER communications, vendors will continue to offer seemingly attractive, proprietary solutions that are adequate until new functions or new vendor devices need to be added.

So Many Standards to Choose From: Just Too Confusing

Currently, utilities and vendors are confused about which standard communications protocols to use for DER integration. We are frequently asked whether to use OpenADR, IEEE 2030.5, SunSPec, MESA, DNP3, IEC 61850, OpenFMB, IEC 61968-5 and others for specific DER applications. Even those that understand communications standards are overwhelmed by the number and differing approaches of the available standards.

Why are there so many standards and how do utilities and vendors decide which one(s) to use for which purpose? Part of the answer is in the structure of the industry in the US: 50 independent state regulators and a historic number of “large enough” utilities to contribute to solving common problems. But because utilities tend to be driven by the most timely issue, a work group gets formed to develop a very narrow standard to solve that specific problem rather than creating a standard which accommodates new use cases and evolves as needed.

We have very popular standards for communicating with SCADA or Utility controlled assets – e.g., DNP 3, ModBus, SunSpec, ICCP, etc. The use case(s) they were designed for did not anticipate the scale and public networks required to accommodate 10’s of 000s of end-points. When we try to use these protocols for a lot of distributed energy resources, the management of groups of DER assets or the challenges of cybersecurity in modern communication systems become issues that were probably not addressed in the standard’s design. So the industry invented new standards like IEC 61850 and OpenADR to address these issues. What we are not good at is building a versatile standard for messaging communications that is general purpose enough to accommodate changing use cases and requirements and continually evolve.

The Standards Learning Curve

A third major challenge to adopting standards for messaging communications is the lack of know-how in specifying and deploying them. The industry is by design exceedingly good at replicating what it already knows how to do – i.e., building generation, transmission and distribution systems and operating them.

What the industry is not well structured to undertake is innovation and the adoption of anything new that might risk the reliability and rate structure it worked so hard to achieve. Because of risk, it takes a lot of work and a long time to accomplish anything new in grid operations. However, when it comes to embracing the use of communications standards for messaging to DER resources, there are a few guidelines that can accelerate the process:

  1. Executive enthusiasm and understanding. This is absolutely essential to any accelerated adoption of standards. It can be accomplished without it but not as rapidly or with as much impact.
  2. Standards Roadmap. Use internal and internal resources to look out long-term (5, 10, 20 years) to envision utility operations and then identify the standardization that will be need to bring the vision about. Having a roadmap can help decide on the priority of applications to standardize, the standards and implementation alliances to support and the training and staffing that will be needed.
  3. Industry Participation. Utilities are continually in demand for a large number of agendas. But to succeed at adopting standards, utilities need to help drive industry focus on the ones that are going to be most valuable in both the short and long term. This is done with dollars, attention and participation by senior staff.
  4. Internal Training. This starts at the top with high-level training on the value and use of standards for communications and moves all the way through the organization to address the learning needs of each organization relevant to adoption and use of standards.

In Summary

There are major challenges to adopting and using messaging communications standards in the grid operations addressing DER as resources. To achieve benefits associated with standardization, the industry needs to insist on their use; spend the time to understand and support the standards they need and learn how to use them internally.

For a downloadable copy of the November 2017 eNewsletterwhich includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center




James Mater founded and has held several executive positions at QualityLogic Inc. from June 1994 to present. He is currently co-founder and general manager of smart grid. He is a member of the GridWise Architecture Council, founder and past chair of Smart Grid NW, an original member of the Test and Certification Committee of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, and prolific author and lecturer on interoperability and smart grid standards. From 2001 to October, 2008, James oversaw QualityLogic as President and CEO. From 1994 to 1999, he founded and built Revision Labs, which merged with Genoa Technologies in 1999 to become QualityLogic. Prior to QualityLogic, James held product management roles at Tektronix, Floating Point Systems, Sidereal and Solar Division of International Harvester. He is a graduate of Reed College and Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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