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Electric Meter Deregulation: Potholes on the Road to Plug-and-Play

Fortnightly Magazine - September 15 1998

Nevolo, president of T&NTR, who represented the Electric Power Research Institute on the PSWG.

"If ESPs procure products and services that utilize proprietary standards, the customers will tend to be locked in. This will tend to limit any future choice the customer may have, as there will be an economic barrier to changing suppliers due to products having incompatible metering and/or data communications standards."

Did that mean the PUC wanted PSWG to achieve "plug-and-play" meters?

"The commission itself talked about these terms," answers Jaske. "But it didn't define them or use them clearly. The charter was somewhat under-specified. It wasn't even clear that the goal of interoperability was something that could be accomplished for a cost that people are willing to support. The group in practice was trying to define its own mission to a larger extent than should be expected for a voluntary organization. The more disharmony on any particular issue, the more it surfaces that you have this lack of direction."

The disharmony probably couldn't have been avoided. The process of setting standards naturally tends to produce winners and losers.

"When you have standards like, plug-and-play, the price just drops," notes Bill Rush, assistant institute physicist for the Institute of Gas Technology, and chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Standards Coordinating Committee No. 31.

"Standards tend to produce a commodity product," explains Stanley Klein, vice chair of IEEE subcommittees on data communications protocols and power systems communications. "You lose product differentiation. New providers can enter the market. The next thing you know, the incumbents are trying to create a niche, with claims like, We not only meet the standards, we exceed them. It's a way of saving market share."

Did disputes between meter vendors limit progress at the PSWG? Mazy is ready with an opinion: "It is certainly my perception, and one which I believe is shared by many others, that the immediate impact of standards on competitive positions underlay many of the parties positions in the workshop."

At the PSWG it appears a need was established for at least four sets of standards - a data format and a communications protocol in each of two places, both at the meter level and at the MDMA server. At the meter level, the PSWG approved ANSI C12.19 as the data format for all new meter types released after March 20, 2000 but with a grandfather clause to exempt all meter products released before that date for the duration of their commercial product lives. At the MDMA server level, according to August Nevolo, it approved EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) as a data format and "implicitly" approved the Internet protocol as a communications protocol. (EDI would replace the California Meter Exchange Protocol, a home-grown interim standard.) The PSWG apparently chose not to fall back on UCA standards developed previously by EPRI.

It would take a book to explain fully the debate over ANSI C12.19. The specifications run more than 150 pages of virtually impenetrable code. Few can describe even what it is. Many have opinions about it.

ABB, which supported