Monday, October 15, 2012

A quiet revolution...

Last week, a small group of executives and engineers from utilities, appliance manufacturers, standards groups, electronics manufacturers, consumer representatives and the Federal government met to start figuring out how to answer the question: How do we have a standard way of interfacing between the different systems on the Utility side of the Meter, and the different systems on the Customer side of the meter?

(Fair disclaimer, this event was hosted by one of my clients, the Energy Information Standards Alliance, with the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, the OpenADR Alliance and the USNAP Alliance co-sponsoring)

If you look at almost any architectural diagram of the Smart Grid, you'll see a little box labeled "Energy Services Interface" or ESI, or something that fulfills that role.  (Some groups call it the Smart Grid User Interface, which is confusing because the user may never see it at work, but the function is the same.)  Some assume that the ESI is part of the meter, some assume it is separate, some assume it exists without specifying where, and some assume it is a "virtual device" made up of the coordinated combined intelligence of a cloud of devices and applications.

Regardless of what it is or where it exists, the lack of a common detailed understanding of what this interface is and what it has to do has been called the "slow-motion train wreck of Smart Grid".  Without it, either every utility has to develop a system to get whatever they have to talk to whatever each customer has (impractical from a hardware and software design standpoint), or utilities have to specify what kind of equipment the customer can get (impractical from a social, policy, and customer relationship standpoint).

While some would like to have the Utility reach all the way through to customer devices to manage load, increasingly, Utilities and consumers alike are calling this a bad idea.
  • Utilities don't want to even begin to try to provide (or specify, coordinate or manage) the kind of variety in devices that customers have come to expect to be able to use.
  • Utilities are also realizing that the more specific data they have about the customer, the greater their potential liability if it is revealed, and the greater cost burden of protecting it.
  • Customers already have trust issues with utilities putting intelligent metering on the outside of their homes, nobody thinks they're going to be happy about the utility having intelligence on the inside.
  • Customers want to be able to "mix and match" their appliances and equipment sources, pretty much the same way they do now.  (We recently remodeled our kitchen, with my charming wife picking the appliances based on the functions and designs she wanted and liked.  The result?  Every direction you look in the "work triangle", you see equipment from a different manufacturer.)
  • Both Utilities and Customer are beginning to recognize that many of the benefits of Smart Grid will come from a diversity of devices in customer loads, each contributing what it can to managing load and the grid itself.
 So what is the ESI?  At a (very) high level, the ESI is:
...a bi-directional, logical, abstract interface that supports the secure communication of information between internal entities (i.e. electrical loads, storage and generation) and external entities.  It comprises the devices and applications that provide secure interfaces between ESPs [Note: Electric Service Providers] and customers for the purpose of machine-to-machine communications. ESIs meet the needs of today’s grid interaction models (e.g., demand response, feed-in tariffs, renewable energy) and will meet those of tomorrow (e.g., retail market transactions).

That's rather a mouthful, so let's break it down.  The first sentence says:
  • bi-directional - it goes both ways
  • logical - it may or may not be a physical device, or may be a single function of a multi-function device.
  • abstract interface - it provides abstraction for the devices on either side.
  • secure communication - communication can neither be prevented, interfered with, spoofed, or performed with the wrong entity/device (at least not easily)
  • between internal entities (i.e. electrical loads, storage and generation) and external entities - it provides the conduit for communication between customer equipment, and whoever is on the grid side of the interface.  
    • Because it is abstract, the ESI cares not one whit what the customer devices are, or who built, owns or controls the grid side entities, except for the needs of security.
    • The ESI provides a common interface for whatever devices or resources the customer has in place and the utility, microgrid, community, neighborhood or other system "outside".
The second sentence adds:
  • devices and applications - note the plural.
  • interfaces between ESPs [Note: Electric Service Providers] and customers - note the plural here, multiple providers may be involved.
  • machine-to-machine communications - if a person has to make decisions, it ain't an ESI.
    • Remember that a device that includes an ESI could also include the presentation of information to people and acceptance of their decisions as input.
The third sentence speaks pretty clearly for itself.  The ESI needs to be sufficiently flexible to be able to handle both currently active relationships between the customer and service provider, but even those relationships where the customer becomes a service provider to someone else.

A tall order, no?  But this week, a group of engineers and executives met in Atlanta to begin the process of developing a "Smart Grid Rosetta Stone".

So what does this do for AMI "social pull" (which we talked about 2 weeks ago)?  Well, one of the key things you need for AMI to have the "social pull" of an iPhone is apps.  Customer side, valuable applications that AMI can make possible or enhance.

Speaking of the iPhone, and "social pull" Apple managed compatibility by creating a very effective "walled garden" where everyone is compatible because everyone uses Apple's approved way of doing things, right down to the programming languages and developer kit.

For a lot of reasons, that's not really an option here, but what we can do is create a "golden device" (whether "real" or "logical") and say:
  • to customer side devices, "If you can talk to this, any ESP will understand you."
  • to ESPs, "If you can talk to this, any customer device will understand you."
That's what "abstraction" does.  It creates a layer that both sides can talk to, and therefore through.  This is absolutely necessary if the kind of customer-side "apps" that create AMI pull are going to become readily available, because, well, go back and read the second paragraph after the jump break.

In another example of "social pull", Facebook provides something people want, and even the privacy-concerned smart meter haters are using it (here, here, here, and here, that I know of) because they want what it provides.  Web browsers are the FSI (Facebook Services Interface).

So what will be the Energy Services Interface?  Stay tuned, or check out the EIS Alliance to see what's happening, and better yet, help out. 

There will be more to do after that 2-day conference, believe me.

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