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Frontlines

Fortnightly Magazine - September 15 1998

a data format for the physical electric meter as one step toward interoperability for meters and metering systems. At the PSWG Internet site, posted messages flew back and forth, trading comments on various preliminary drafts of the group's final report. To judge by some of those messages, you would think you had walked in to the middle of a suburban zoning hearing.

"Quite a lively discussion," said one message. "Philosophical and verbose," said another. A third complained: "I feel very strongly that PSWG did not succeed in its mission. In fact, I get the feeling that many PSWG participants, for whatever reasons, do not feel it is important to achieve standardization."

Clearly, C12.19 was a flash point. But what was it? A matrix of database fields? A code of conduct? I interviewed at least 20 experts and could not get what I considered to be a meaningful reply that a utility regulator might be expected to understand. Here's one sample answer:

"C12.19, as described by one of its originators, Richard Tucker, uses indirect addressing' data memory accessing versus earlier versions [which used] direct memory' data accessing. If data is referenced as Table X, Offset Y bytes, Length Z bytes,' or Table X, Indices N1, N2, N3 ,' then manufacturers are free to make both hardware and software updates to their meter end devices without having to inform anyone how data should be accessed - it stays the same. For example, to access kWh data, it is always Table 23, Indices 0,1,0,1. ' This is a major improvement over the previous data accessing method."

Driven to frustration, I ordered a copy of C12.19 from ANSI, via second-day air. When I unwrapped my package I found about 170-odd pages of impenetrable software programming codes, stuff like "SELF-READ-INHIBIT-OVERFLOW-FLAG." Maybe it's better to leave the standards to the engineers.

Gelling as a Group

Buried within the definition of C12.19 lies everything that's both right and wrong about electric utility deregulation.

Consider the process: A working group, with 60 or so members, each an expert, whose time is billed in triple digits, spending weeks and months scrutinizing endless lines of formatting codes. What was it for? One member admitted faults but found a silver lining: "We ended up spending most of our time on ANSI C12.19. Sometimes I look back on PSWG and think, my gosh, there's so much left to be done. It's just a staggering task. But sometimes I look back with pride on what we did. We developed a group of people that respect each other. It gelled as a group. It takes a while to get the group dynamics going. We achieved more than we had a right to expect."

Is that the idea of deregulation - to gather together groups of wise men and women, to build comaraderie? Yet another source revealed undercurrents lurking behind the good feelings: "Many workshop participants, perhaps having significant financial interests at stake, seemed reluctant to give too much specificity to the PSWG Report. Ordinarily, a workgroup would define its terms at the outset of its work,