The new nexus of interoperability

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The energy market is becoming more diverse with the emergence of new players, the changing dynamics of business operations and an ever-increasing level of complexity.

The onset of new energy networks has resulted in multi-utility AMI (advanced metering infrastructure) solutions across electricity, gas, heat, and water becoming a much more compelling business case than before. Leveraging existing AMI investment to realise operational and societal benefits to reduce cost and improve customer service is the new norm.

As the market continues to evolve and the use of embedded, decentralised generation becomes less niche and more mainstream, it has become evident that AMI is no longer just about installing smart meters but also utilising near real-time data to power new applications, markets, and services.

Markets and systems connect

Today’s AMI solutions are at the bridging point of regulated and unregulated markets with the provision of data from smart meters to other in-home energy management and home automation systems and applications outside of the traditional regulated utility domain.

The electrification of transportation and heating, coupled with decentralised generation and storage possibilities will further push the boundaries of the data possibilities from the smart metering network, both existing and new. A new focal point or nexus of interoperability, whereby the smart metering world meets the Industrial Internet of Things, has emerged.

Standardisation is key

So how do we unlock the potential of this new nexus? The answer to this question is simple: through standardisation. But this belies the complexity of the real-world delivery aspects.

Specifying a set of protocol standards is a great starting point, but that is only the very beginning of the story. Without a well-defined set of use cases and a precisely specified data model, all the large rollouts would not only be impossible, but the current expansion into new, innovative use cases and possibilities would also be much more difficult.

Now, more than ever, the bar is raised with regard to what is expected from interoperability and interchangeability. The utility industry has been tackling the issue of interoperability for over a decade, ever since the inception of the original 2009 European Union smart metering mandate. Over this time, a greater universal understanding of the concepts of interoperability and interchangeability has emerged.

At the forefront of that effort has been Standards Setting Organisations (SSOs) such as the DLMS User Association (UA), the IDIS Association and the OMS Group.

These organisations liaise with the Standards Development Organisations (SDOs) such as IEC, ANSI, CEN/CENELEC and various National Standardisation Committees at different stages of the standardisation process. The DLMS UA interacts with the SDOs at the beginning of the process to develop the core standards to be published by the SDOs.

The IDIS Association and the OMS Group, and more recently the DLMS UA, liaise with the SDOs to respond to industry needs after the publication of standards by developing application specific “Companion Specifications” or “Generic Companion Profiles” as well as certification platforms for compatibility of smart metering applications, bringing interoperability to the level of interchangeability.

Interchangeability explained

How is interchangeability different from interoperability and how does that relate to compliance and compatibility?

“THE BAR IS BEING RAISED WITH REGARD TO WHAT IS EXPECTED FROM INTEROPERABILITY AND INTERCHANGEABILITY”

We can use a simple analogy to examine this question: imagine the core standards provide a precise list of cooking ingredients containing their name, exact description, and properties beyond question (“the standard ingredients”). However, the core standards do not always contain “recipes” telling the reader how to make a specific meal. This task of creating the recipes, and taking standardisation to the next level, is achieved through the Companion Specifications or Generic Companion Profiles that make choices and selections from the core standards to fully describe how to make a particular meal using the standard ingredients, consistently and to the same level.

The core standards (DLMS/COSEM, M-Bus, etc.) provide the standard ingredients. Then, either the associations themselves (in the case of the DLMS UA) or other associations (the IDIS Association, OMS Group, etc.) propose selections (Companion Specifications or Generic Companion Profiles) and provide certification services to ensure compatibility to warrant that the end result is always the same regardless of manufacturer or geography.

By adding a certification platform to prove compatibility between devices and systems operating in a specific operational environment, it takes interoperability one step further, providing a level of interchangeability within the scope of a certain set of use cases.

Interchangeability and certified compatible devices are crucial parts of a healthy competitive market, offering a “plug & play” option at the lowest cost of ownership, regardless of where the devices are purchased or by whom they are operated. It furthermore does not exclude innovation, but rather provides a baseline platform from which to innovate.

The utilisation of USB in the IT industry is a great example of how such innovation can be served through standardisation, paving the way to billions of devices being sold that can connect to any system while always guaranteeing a minimum set of functionalities.

Utility applications

Some organisations and utilities within Europe have opted to work through this approach on their own and develop an entire end-to-end solution from specification to certification.

“INTERCHANGEABILITY AND CERTIFIED COMPATIBLE DEVICES ARE CRUCIAL PARTS OF A HEALTHY COMPETITIVE MARKET”

However, due to its limited and targeted applicability, this approach can be very time consuming and expensive for both the specifiers and the vendors hoping to provide compatible equipment.

In contrast, other utilities have opted to use the proven methodology from SSOs who have already been through this consensus-based specification development and testing process. The benefits of taking a standard set of use cases are vast and have been clearly demonstrated over the past decade:
• Ecosystem of experts to manage the specification;
• Ready-made certification platform to guarantee compliance and compatibility;
• Shortcut to working solutions rather than years of development effort;
• Support and bug fixes as part of the process;
• Wider pool of interoperable products to choose from, without the overhead of special developments;
• Shorter time to market than developing a bespoke solution;
• Assurance that most of the common pitfalls in specification writing and edge cases (time adjustment, communication
failures, power outages, concurrent operations, invalid clock etc.) have been thought through and tested.

The drive for greater efficiency does not only apply to smart metering methodology and specifications. Utilities and new energy players are also looking at driving business growth through multi-utility and IOT efficiency. As electric vehicles and distributed power generation increase, consumers will inevitably play a more active role and drive the emergence of customer-facing innovation, digital multi-utility platforms enabling new applications and business models.

Utilities are beginning to venture out of their current business models and the industry is more open to collaboration on utilising existing networks to achieve these goals. The convergence of multi-utility solutions and the shared connectivity of strategic energy and water infrastructure are resulting in clear benefits of cost-efficiency, scalability, and additional functionality.

These new ecosystems present some challenges but also opportunities to drive innovation through standardisation ensuring flexibility, interoperability, and the ability to deploy these use cases efficiently and at scale, while anticipating future needs and allowing the emergence of innovative services bringing the consumer convenience that is expected nowadays.

More than metering

In recent times, the DLMS User Association has expanded its activities to cover data exchange beyond smart metering. New working groups were created to deliver generic companion specifications and compatibility profiles in a variety of applications including smart metering, communications from smart meters to electric vehicle charging stations and the communications between smart meters and remote displays and metrology sensors.

Innovation does not always involve developing new products or services, but often focuses on improving what already exists. Henry Ford is purported to have said: “If you think of standardisation as the best that you know today but which is to be improved tomorrow, you get somewhere.” This statement is.

Some use cases in the utility world that are the foundation of efficient and effective business operations may be standardised to a greater degree … but only when they are fully understood – while new and exciting developments and innovations can only be standardised when they are better understood and have had time to develop.

Let’s spend our valuable time and resources in the industry not reinventing known use cases, but rather innovating and understanding the next set of standard use cases so that we will be included in off-the-shelf specifications 10 years from now.

About the authors

Tony Field is Chairman of the DLMS User Association Board of Directors since 2016. With over twenty years of experience in the smart metering and smart grid space, he is currently Associate Director of Standards at Itron, having previously held positions in Manufacturing Engineering, Product Management, and Marketing.

Pieter Coetzee currently leads market and business development activities for Itron across EMEA and APAC; he is the elected president of the IDIS Association standardizing smart meter protocols globally.

Charles van Dyck has over 35 years experience with metering in the utility markets in Europe and has been involved in many smart gas metering projects from the early beginning. Today he is responsible for smart gas metering at the Polish manufacturer Apator Metrix. Since 2015 he is marketing group leader of OMS, Open Metering System.

Enlit Europe

A group of experts from across the industry will be examining this topic and some real-life practical examples in more detail at this year’s Enlit Europe, in Milan, Italy. Join the discussion on 1 December from 9.30-12.30 at the Interoperability Hub Session in Hall 8 or visit the DLMS booth at Enlit 8.D80 and the OMS booth at Enlit 8.B50.