By Mark Walker, VP North America, Spintelligent, Clarion Events
That was the question being asked at the opening of KEMA’s Smart Grid Interoperability Lab in Erlanger, Kentucky on October 18.
It is also a question that is wrestled with on a granular level every time a regulator or utility weighs up an investment to improve their current grid, and the myriad solutions they have to choose from in achieving that.
For example, trying to understand how a particular smart meter will perform within a particular RF mesh network delivered by a different third party is not something you can easily or accurately predict; and yet it’s not something you want to take a chance on when it may result in having to replace thousands of meters that don’t perform in quite the way you expected.
Neither do you want to wait until you’ve already invested in a multi-million dollar live pilot to find out that the backhaul you rely on does not properly integrate with your head end system, or that you can’t effectively use your MDMS because of interoperability issues further down the ecosystem.
These are the kinds of highly technical, headache inducing and potentially expensive scenarios KEMA’s newly unveiled Smart Grid Interoperability Lab (SGIL) is designed to answer. “The testing will provide utilities the confidence they need to purchase and deploy new technologies in the field and it will provide manufacturers of new technologies with proof of product performance,” says Paul Leufkens, president of KEMA Powertest, LLC who manages KEMA’s testing labs in the Americas.
The new facility evolved from the Envision Center, a joint initiative undertaken by KEMA and Duke Energy three years ago to show the benefits of smart grid technology. KEMA’s president and managing director for the Americas, Hugo van Nispen, explains: “The Envision Center has been a great tool for helping regulators, policy makers and other stakeholders visualize how utilities balance the complex demands of delivering electricity to their constituents by providing a tangible environment that they can touch and feel. The Interoperability Lab is a natural extension of this – it takes the vision of a smart grid and makes it real.”
While the Envision Center is a neat visualisation of the functionality found across the distribution grid, the SGIL is the workhorse designed to road test the many choices of vendor solutions across several layers that have evolved between electricity generation and consumption.
As vendors across the ecosystem have competed to offer their vision to utilities of how the smart grid should evolve, the need for true interoperability testing has become more apparent.
KEMA’s project manager for the SGIL, Harry Stephey explains: “Being interoperable is much more than being compatible or compliant with particular specifications or compliance standards – that can be achieved without necessarily offering a smooth integration with other existing systems they have to work with. In the smart grid, which is a system of systems, true interoperability is about seamless performance out in the field.”
Some of the interoperability testing available at the SGIL includes smart home and smart consumer products; energy storage and community storage; electric vehicle charging with the grid; cyber security measures; smart meters; and IEC 61850.
But the big question remains: what is the value of interoperability to the smart grid market and its key stakeholders, and why build an end-to-end interoperability lab to reach such a goal?
The answer, it seems, can be broken down into roughly three value chains:
1. For vendors and manufacturers it can help to refine their offerings in the marketplace. For example they will be able to iterate their products to become more interoperable and for some, this could be the differentiating factor that allows them to make bigger plays in the smart grid as it continues to evolve, by launching as the most interoperable solutions on the market. This will appeal to utilities looking for flexible, “future proof” solutions that easily integrate with existing infrastructure and don’t lock them into a single solution provider.
2. For utilities the value is potentially even greater, and derived from cost reduction and risk management, but it can also help them in proving a business case to regulators.
Making solutions interoperable helps to create a more open bidding process, where a utility knows – or can demand – that several vendor solutions fit in with their legacy systems, thus avoiding a situation of being locked into one particular technology provider.
“This choice has an obvious benefit – it creates a market that drives down the cost of adopting these new technologies,” says George Arnold, who has been the national coordinator for Smart Grid Interoperability at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) since April 2009.
One of the SGIL’s most advanced offerings will let a utility model aspects of the distribution infrastructure within the lab, but feed the results through in a way that the characteristics can be tested for applicability within that utility’s own unique configuration, meaning they can conduct a lot of the risk assessment for a new deployment before it gets to a live pilot stage.
This in-lab risk assessment and interoperability testing then has the added benefit that it “allows them to focus on the process and the benefits rather than the feasibility and the technology. That way they can get to the business of proving the value rather than concept,” says van Nispen. This of course helps their relationships with regulators and communities, who care more about the outcome and the technology nuances that underpin them.
“Applying digital communications technology to the existing power grid is an important step in the evolution of the energy industry and in consumers’ ability to achieve sustainable energy efficiency in their homes and businesses,” said David Mohler, Duke Energy’s chief technology officer. “The success of smart grid in this nation depends on the technology being integrated safely and securely into the existing infrastructure, and KEMA’s work at our Envision Center will give utilities and suppliers a living lab where they can test product functionality and benefits before rolling it out for consumers.”
3. For everyone else – that includes regulators, customers and those who wish to venture into the complex smart grid ecosystem, there are two major values of interoperability.
The first is cost. If utilities can procure grid upgrades and deliver better services for less, then these saving can be directly passed onto consumers in lower rates, despite safer, more reliable and sustainable energy delivery.
The second is achieved by establishing more meaningful standards that are specific enough – and use-tested across sufficient product sets – to ensure confidence that anyone meeting them will guarantee an acceptable level of interoperability. This helps new players wanting to develop products that can penetrate the market by guaranteeing interoperability with existing systems. And for regulators it provides a measure of confidence that when their utilities invest in a particular technology, it will work with innovations that come onto the market and not make the original investment obsolete overnight.
Daniel T. Reffett, manager Telecommunications at LG&E and KU Energy LLC says: “This is good for the state of Kentucky because it allows our regulators to see the smart grid in action and understand how some of the complexities can be overcome through sharing experiences and building interoperability standards, which could drive down costs and mitigate risks for everyone.”
After the ribbon cutting for the SGIL had taken place and over a glass of champagne, it is obvious that everyone here agrees that this is a positive step in the right direction, and any progress in the quest for true interoperability should lead to a lot of clearly defined value for the smart grid and its stakeholders over the coming years.