July 1, 2001
L.A. Loves a Loophole
There's no getting around it...
Setting EDI Standards: Business Beats Technology
Northeast states avoid meter squabbles, stress electronic commerce.
It ain't the chip, it's the interface. That's the ticket in New England and the Northeast, where utilities, power producers, retailers and marketers are standardizing electronic data transfers of customer lists, enrollment choices, energy consumption and billing determinants - the business information that will be prove essential to a working competitive market in electricity. They've done that by postponing the question of unbundling for meter equipment, software and related technology, focusing instead on the commercial transactions that must take place at network- and client-server-level interface between distribution utilities and generation suppliers.
Contrast that with California, where policymakers had decided early on that electric competition wouldn't work without opening metering and billing at the same time, and then tried to set standards for the equipment itself.
In Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut, industry working groups have recommended standards for electronic data interchange, or EDI, with regulators close to issuing final approvals. At press time, Pennsylvania was rushing to finish testing EDI rules in time for bills to go out at the end of January, the first month of full-scale retail electric competition, and for the first exchange of EDI-based transactional information, set for Feb. 1. Connecticut regulators approved a set of EDI standards in mid-January. In New York, recommendations were expected by May. Much of the initiative had come from the Utility Industry Group, an ad hoc group of representatives from utilities and energy suppliers formed in the late 1980s to foster national EDI standards for the energy industry. Funded by the Edison Electric Institute, the UIG functions under the umbrella of ASC X12, the Accredited Standards Committee formed by the American National Standards Institute to set standards for EDI.
But last summer in California, meter vendors were jostling technology and proprietary systems. Industry infighting over meter-level data formats diverted California's Permanent Standards Working Group. Not long after the PSWG had submitted its report to the state Public Utilities Commission in July, some questioned the result, alleging that the PSWG failed to achieve its PUC-assigned mission because it ran out of time before setting network-level communications standards.
Chris King, vice president at CellNet, a meter system vendor, highlights the difference in strategies: "EDI standards are independent of metering technologies, because they specify data transfer formats at the server level." According to King, CellNet has "strongly supported national EDI standards, and "has shared information from the various states, hoping to help the process."
Of course, the New England and Northeast states must eventually consider the tough questions. Is competitive metering required or simply optional? Should EDI standards require transfers of or access to interval usage or meter reads, even if utilities must incur high costs to extract such data? Should EDI set employ value-added networks, or VANs, for data communications, which have proven reliable? Or should standards rely instead on the Internet, which is cheaper, "but not yet common," says King, who adds that Internet use is required or planned in California, Nevada and Arizona.
In Massachusetts, the state restructuring statute postpones competition for metering, billing and