Addressing Smart Grid and Consumer Info

With state regulators increasingly insisting on near-term consumer benefits from costly smart grid deployment, the federally backed Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) is accelerating development of a national standard that will specify the types of energy usage data that utility smart meters and information systems must deliver to ratepayers so they can take action to cut their consumption, a top federal official says.

George Arnold, an official at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) who is spearheading government-industry efforts to set national smart grid standards, also told Congress recently that his agency and the SGIP—a panel of smart grid experts from utilities and other affected industries—were hustling on standards for home appliances that can communicate with the grid so those products can go to market next year.

In testimony this summer to the House Science and Technology Committee, Arnold said that while NIST and SGIP were working to assure that U.S. standards harmonize with those of other countries, he was concerned that China was going its own way and that automakers in different countries were diverging on standards for fast-charging stations for electric vehicles.

However, Arnold said NIST had taken action on another key issue by enlisting the North American Energy Standards Board to develop a standard defining the kind of electricity consumption data that must be made available to consumers.

Arnold said NIST and industry officials considered the consumer data standard one of their highest priorities and that he expected a draft proposal to be released by the end of the year.

“Today, the only information available to most consumers about their electricity usage is their monthly utility bill,” he told lawmakers. “Consumers need more timely and detailed electronic access to their data in order to reduce energy usage.”

Arnold’s testimony comes as state regulators are focusing more intently on assuring that ratepayers get tangible benefits from expensive utility proposals to install smart meters across their service territories. In particular, they want consumers to get usage data in a timely fashion so they can take action to reduce their consumption and their energy bills—one of the main goals of smart grid deployment.

The lack of near-term consumer benefits was one of the primary issues cited by the Maryland Public Service Commission in June when it surprised and dismayed smart grid advocates by rejecting an $800 million deployment program proposed by Baltimore Gas & Electric (BG&E), the regulated utility subsidiary of Constellation Energy Group.

Among other complaints, the commission said BG&E’s plan paid too little attention to providing ratepayers with in-home devices through which they could monitor their energy usage. The commission urged BG&E to come back with a new plan that contained more specific proposals for giving consumers the data they need to better understand their electricity consumption patterns so they could reduce energy usage or move it into off-peak hours when power rates are lower.

The California Public Utilities Commission also emphasized the need for the state’s three investor-owned utilities to develop concrete “smart customer” plans when it voted June 24 to adopt a smart grid deployment plan for the state.

And the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) said NIST’s consumer information standard was central to ensuring the effective coordination and operation of the many appliances, monitoring devices and communication and software systems that will make up the smart grid.

“Without a standardized format for organizing and presenting this information, there is the danger that a confusing variety of approaches would emerge leading to incompatibilities among energy management products and services that would reduce gains in energy efficiency and impede other anticipated benefits of the smart grid,” NEMA said in a July press release praising Arnold’s announcement on consumer usage information.

In addition to prioritizing the consumer information standard, Arnold said NIST and SGIP are intensifying their efforts to help the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issue its first smart grid rulemaking.

Arnold noted that due to the evolving nature of many smart grid technologies, FERC was likely to move in a step-wise way on regulations rather than taking sweeping action to quickly impose many standards. “I anticipate that FERC’s initial rulemaking will focus on a subset of the standards identified by NIST that are the most mature and the most critically needed for end-to-end smart grid interoperability and security,” he said.

Arnold also said FERC and state regulators needed to recognize that while all of NIST’s standards will be needed for the smart grid, not all of them should be adopted as regulatory requirements. “Many consensus standards are already widely used by industry on a strictly voluntary basis,” he said. “In some cases their adoption in regulations can be counterproductive. A careful balance must be struck to ensure that the most critical standards needed to ensure end-to-end interoperability and security are adopted in regulations, without impeding continuing innovation and technology improvement.”

In fact, Arnold said NIST needed to move quickly on some key standards to keep up with the development of smart grid-enabled technology, most notably home appliances that are being designed for wireless communication with utility systems.

“Several major appliance manufacturers have announced their intention to bring to market smart grid-enabled consumer appliances beginning in late 2011, provided that standards for communication between appliances and the grid for pricing and demand response signals are resolved by the end of 2010,” he said. “The existence of too many competing standards has the potential to fragment the market and impede its development.”

Arnold said NIST was working with affected industries and the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and was on schedule to resolve the issue by the end of this year.

More broadly, Arnold said NIST and the SGIP were determined to harmonize U.S. smart grid standards with those of other countries to the maximum extent possible, in part to give U.S. companies the biggest possible market for exporting smart grid products and services. Of the 75 standards initially identified by NIST as necessary for the U.S. grid, 77% are produced by international standards organizations, he noted.

But while NIST is working with other major countries to ensure consistency to the maximum extent possible, he expressed concern about reports that China might be going its own way on smart grid standards.

“I have read some reports that predict that China’s preference for indigenous innovation will extend to the smart grid, and that China may seek to establish its own standards for the smart grid in the belief that the size of its market will lead to their adoption as de facto global standards,” he said. “I hope that this will not be the case, and that China will take action to strengthen collaboration with the U.S. in creating harmonized international standards.”

Arnold said the problems caused by differing smart grid standards were illustrated by disparate efforts in various countries on the interconnection standard between electric vehicles and the grid for high-voltage, rapid charging.

He said while consistent standards had been set for charging infrastructure for first-generation electric vehicles, that was not the case for the fast-charging technology needed for widespread adoption of electric vehicles.

“There are at least four different competing proposals advocated by auto manufacturers headquartered in the U.S., Japan, Europe and China on what this interface should be,” Arnold said. “Lack of clarity on what the standard will be could impede development of a charging infrastructure in the U.S.”

—George Lobsenz is executive editor of The Energy Daily, a sister publication of MANAGING POWER.

More Stories You Might Like