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No Pain, No Gain: Interoperable Systems Elude Gas Industry

Fortnightly Magazine - October 1 1999

be combined with equipment from different vendors and with different operating technologies reduces purchasing costs, system interconnection costs and the risk of system obsolescence.

But coordinating the work of many diverse standards committees, as well as the purchasing needs of gas companies, won't happen by itself. Achieving GAIN's goal of integrated automation, Rush contends, depends on participation by the energy companies that use the systems.

It's the Interface, Not Technology

While integrated automation long has been an industry objective, work toward development of interoperable metering systems - and the technical standards that would allow open architecture - has intensified in the past several years, as several state PUCs adopted rules for standardized metering as part of restructuring initiatives. (See "Electric Meter Deregulation: Potholes on the Road to Plug-and-Play," Public Utilities Fortnightly, Sept. 15, 1998.) In fact, the Electric Power Research Institute in the late 1980s developed the Utility Communications Architecture, or UCA, an open architecture standard for the electric industry. Working with EPRI, the Gas Research Institute adapted UCA for the design of interoperable systems within the gas industry.

Nevertheless, AMR standards development efforts have been hindered by disagreements over data formatting and communications protocols. Vendors, too, have dug in their heels, opposing any standards seen as biased in favor of their competitors' proprietary technologies.

Rush favors a simple approach to standardization that fits into the UCA's broader model. "A couple of things are fundamental," he says. "One is that we can only standardize interfaces between units." allows gas companies plenty of room for innovation in two ways, Rush adds.

First, by not specifying any particular AMR technology (for example, satellite vs. radio technology), the standard would encourage the development of new technologies and vendor competition - which will drive down prices. "To lock in on one technology would cripple the field," he notes.

Secondly, innovation would facilitate what Rush calls "the business dimension."

"Right now, we're in a transition stage between monopoly and competition, and we need to put in place technology that allows rapid 'shuffling' or 'reconfiguration' by companies," he explains. Such reconfiguration, adds Rush, may be required to accommodate company mergers or for other new business opportunities.

"The telephone network serves as a good model for GAIN," he says. System interoperability in telecommunications, according to Rush, facilitated technological advances over the years, from copper to fiber optic cables. The customer enjoyed seamless service with no need for upgrades to his equipment - the phone - while system upgrades and organizational changes among deregulated telcos effected higher reliability and lower rates.

"The brilliance of interoperability is that you can survive both types of technology advances. 's exactly the kind of standardization we want to achieve," explains Rush.

"The problem is how do we standardize that interface," he says.

Rush lists several options. The interface could be standardized through a de facto proprietary approach, a la Microsoft. A second, less-desirable approach would be for the government to create a standard, backed by force of law. However, that approach typically isn't taken in the United States unless there are environmental or safety