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Why Interoperability?

As telecommunications and banking illustrate, interoperability is a necessary platform for innovation of services and technologies that create new value

As telecommunications and banking illustrate, interoperability is a necessary platform for innovation of services and technologies that create new value for users. We cannot conceive today what could happen on the electric grid that will parallel the video iPod, do-everything cell phones, or eBay and But we can be certain that the creation of an interoperability platform will liberate and enable innovations and services that leverage today's electric system and add value while driving down costs.

I have the privilege of working on the Department of Energy's GridWise Architecture Council to promote interoperability with Alison Silverstein, a coworker on the U.S.-Canada Blackout Investigation, and we are committed to making interoperability happen. Silverstein and I believe that if there had been better interoperability of information and technology across the Northeast grid in August 2003, the blackout would have been smaller in scope and impact, and might even have been prevented entirely.

Interoperability has important economic consequences. Systems with high interoperability have lower equipment costs and lower transactions costs, higher competition between equipment suppliers, higher productivity through automation, more conversion of data and information into insight, and more innovation of technology and applications.

The electric industry doesn't talk much about interoperability — yet. We use terms like “plug and play,” or talk about meeting reliability standards and complying with business practices and regulations, but there's not yet much cohesion around the concept of seamless, end-to-end connectivity of hardware and software from the customers' appliances all the way through the T&D system to the power source.

Consider telecommunications as a good example. Once upon a time, there was the black rotary phone and one telephone company. Today, 75% of American adults have a cell phone and use such devices to take pictures, listen to music, handle e-mail, watch a video, surf the Web, play games, vote for an American Idol — and, yes, even talk on the phone. Data traffic dwarfs voice traffic over the world's telecommunications systems, and 73% of adult Americans use the Internet. All this happened not because some early visionaries preached “convergence,” but because the telephone companies needed common information protocols and architectures to exchange information more effectively across the phone network.

What can interoperability do for the electric system? Interoperability will improve grid reliability by collecting more useful information and flowing it more effectively to operators and equipment to improve and protect grid operations. Interoperability and better data flows between transmission and generation devices — complemented by better monitoring, communications and control systems and power management devices — can provide timely, automatic and seamless ways to operate the grid to deliver more energy more efficiently under normal and adverse conditions. It will reduce the need for drastic actions like load shedding and lower the risk of blackouts.

Over time, interoperability will lower costs by using information to leverage and fine-tune capital investments. When a utility can use advanced metering, customer data management systems, demand response and distributed generation to better size a new distribution or transmission line, or displace costly reliability must-run generation for voltage support, it will use interoperability and integration to manage its capital and operations expenses more wisely.

Interoperability down to the consumer will improve market operations by using efficiency and demand response to react to electricity supplies, reducing energy use when prices are highest or supply is tightest. This will benefit asset owners and consumers.

But interoperability doesn't just happen, it takes work. Underlying every interoperable system is hard work by many people over many years to converge around a common vision of the value of an interoperable system; develop common principles and architecture for the bones of the system and some early applications goals; agree to common information protocols and device identification; and eventually, converge around the detailed standards that express and implement all of these things.

Recent predictions suggest that the U.S. electric industry will invest US$300 billion in new T&D facilities (including advanced meters) over the next decade and $400 billion in new power plants over the next 25 years. If we start now, we can build interoperability principles and capabilities into those investments and hasten the improvements in reliability, costs, innovation and value that interoperability can deliver.

Don Watkins is manager of operations and scheduling practices at the Bonneville Power Administration's Transmission Business Line, a member of the Department of Energy's GridWise Architecture Council and a contributor to the Seams Steering Group-Western Interconnection.

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