Dynamic customer systems integration – the promises and challenges


By Joe Hughes

To get there will require cooperative work with utilities, regulators, researchers, vendors and service providers alike. The open systems and standards necessary to achieve this vision is a critical enabling system.

In addition to opening greatly improved customer services, the following are some of the additional possibilities that are opened up by the ability to communicate between utility and customer systems. These next generation energy delivery and service functions are enabled through open systems and industry standards-based interfaces at key points.

New energy service options
Entirely new classes of customer energy service and efficiency options could be opened up through the ability to monitor energy delivery including voltage, reactive power and power quality.

Automated demand response
Beyond air conditioner and water heater controls, any piece of equipment could participate in demand response signals and to new provocative rate structures such as critical peak and real time pricing. The promise includes demand responsive equipment enabled through capabilities already built into appliances at the factory and made available at the local appliance store.

Next generation of energy efficiency
The next generation of heating and cooling equipment, buildings and transportation systems, with features such as self monitoring and diagnosing, remote maintenance and integrated operation, promise new levels of efficiency and performance. Future advancements in energy efficiency now promise improved life cycle management of equipment through the ability to properly commission equipment and continuously monitor performance.

Management of distributed generation
The ability to integrate and effectively manage new forms of generation and storage within customer facilities opens new operating paradigms for generation, transmission and distribution systems. However, this equipment, whether on-site within customer facilities or up on the transmission and distribution system, needs to be properly integrated with power delivery operations.

Next generation self administering equipment
The promise also includes advanced systems administration. Often referred to as “plug and play” the promise of easy to maintain networks of connected intelligent equipment must be a part of the future or it will not happen. Whether it is utility equipment or customer networks and appliances, this vision promises sophisticated setup and self administering communications administration not unlike that provided by the USB “thumb drives” when plugged into the back of a PC.

So much for the promises and “visions”, now comes the work. The visions of these automation functions are not new and have been discussed now for over three decades. Many of these energy related functions have been implemented through hobbyists, custom systems and one-off projects going back to the mid-1970s. Much of the “raw” foundation technology – microprocessors, network communications, software, embedded computing systems have been around even longer. So why don’t we have all this automation today?

The root of the problem
Little of the visions put forward will happen without critical technical infrastructure getting into place in a coordinated and timely manner. The industry remains substantially technically fragmented with only pockets of interoperable infrastructure developed. The root of the problem is lack of understanding of the need for the right kind of technology, and then the right kind of focused work to bring it to fruition. The kind of technology needed is that which enables interoperable networks, well managed systems and intelligently integrated equipment. Some of this technology exists today and some doesn’t.

Not any technology will do
The status quo is an industry largely dependent on proprietary systems and disparate technologies that are often incompatible. Most automated systems are collections of different systems that must be customised to fit together, if they can be brought together at all. This typically results in a minimal set of applications. The flood of “new” communications technologies now emerging and even on the horizon only adds to the chaos if it cannot be effectively integrated into what could be considered industry architecture. The energy industry in many areas of customer systems integration currently lacks some of the critical technology necessary to fully integrate equipment that is developed across multiple industries.

To be fair, the challenge is not trivial. The promise of integrated customer and energy service provider operations means that integration must take place across several industries that not only don’t talk together but are in entirely different professional societies. Systems within the home, for instance, span the heating air conditioning and ventilation systems (HVAC), building, appliances, pool/hot tub, consumer electronics, power generation and now the emerging plug-in hybrid automotive industries. Add to this list the telecommunications, entertainment and home office industries and you have the ingredients of a technical tower of Babel.

What do we need to get done?
The power and energy delivery infrastructure needs to fully integrate communications with intelligent equipment across the industry to reach the necessary level of maturity to meet future requirements. The starting place is the vision of an industry-level architecture that can provide a foundation and framework for integrating systems across industries and operating departments within utilities.

Architecture has been defined as “The structure of components, their relationships, and the principles and guidelines governing their design and evolution over time”. This definition was taken from the US Federal Government that is applying architecture principles in the development and operation of defence systems as well as government agencies.

The “building blocks” of architecture are solid, well developed and integrated open technical standards that are needed to provide a stable foundation upon which vendors can build interoperable equipment. The basic power system we have today has thrived largely upon the science of power engineering and the technical standards that were developed upon that science. Many of the power engineering standards that we have today were put into place more than a century ago. Similarly the intelligent systems infrastructure needs to be based on critical technical standards.

There is good work that can be built upon
Significant work has taken place within key standards communities. For utility automation and field equipment communications the work taking place under the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) TC 57 committees serves as an international foundation for the next generation of automation equipment. The standard IEC 61850, for instance, is proposed for advanced automation equipment operating in real time environments. This standard is also being developed for distribution automation as well as integrating distributed energy resources, including those that are customer owned and operated. In building communications there is substantial work that has taken place under the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in the Building Automation and Control Network (BACnet™) standard. For metering substantial work has been accomplished in the ANSI C12 series and IEC standards. Other key standards have been formed under the Electronics Industries Association (EIA), Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), among others.

In addition to standards, user groups play a key supporting role in the form of conformance testing, settling technical issues in the standard and developing technical interoperability agreements. In support of industry standards development, the following are examples of user groups that have formed with the mission of bringing the industry together. The UCA® International Users Group (UCA IUG) is the most established over the breadth of an industry level architecture. Initially established by some visionary utilities and EPRI in the early 1990s, this group is the umbrella organisation for key standards related to advanced automation, enterprise integration and customer systems, including metering. UCA IUG includes the IEC 61850 standard users, the IEC 61970/61968 (Common Information Model) Users Group, as well as the recently formed Open Advanced Metering Infrastructure (Open AMI) that encompasses the utility driven Utility AMI, Open Home Area Network and Open Security working groups. In addition the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies has been working on guidelines in support of the ANSI C12-based standards.

Research and development is still needed
Though work on the building blocks (standards and interop agreements) has been taking place, more work is needed. In particular the right kind of integration technology needs to be developed. A few examples of needed technical development include the following:

  • Integrated standards that effectively bring together the technical domain expertise in the different industries
  • Architecture development and industry models are needed to document the big picture and identify the major interfaces
  • Network and systems management technologies are necessary to be able to effectively manage a variety of networking and communications technologies
  • Robust cyber security and security management infrastructures need further development
  • A common application level language is still needed for inbuilding communications, particularly residential systems
  • Development of interfaces to end-use equipment with manufacturers and systems integrators
  • Systems engineering methods and architecture development tools also need further R&D.

In addition to research and development, consistent business and operation policy standards are needed. Fragmented efforts across state lines do not help. These infrastructures cross state lines in the US just like the system of roads and highways.

Standards need to be seen as critical enabling infrastructure – not just as an afterthought or something that gets in the way or stops innovation. Future energy consuming equipment must have the opportunity to become fully communicating and integrated into a mature and well managed infrastructure that enables thousands of vendors to supply innovative products. Every device that can be plugged in or plumbed into public energy and water infrastructures should be additionally enabled through communications networks and onboard intelligence. The future visions can happen but only through the right kind of focused work combined with cooperative industry-wide efforts.