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No Pain, No Gain: Interoperable Systems Elude Gas Industry

Fortnightly Magazine - October 1 1999


"But we're looking for [a standard] that is open, to allow a lot of people to participate and agree on it," he says. Unlike proprietary and government standards, says Rush, the voluntary open architecture model encourages innovation and competition.

He compares the industry's task to that faced by the electronics industry years ago in the formation of interface standards between televisions and video cassette recorders.

"The work to make sure they interface in a standard way had to be enormous," says Rush. "But it basically boils down to one little plug that connects the TV and VCR, and you can buy it at Kmart and know it will work. You can't blow it."

Tackling Both Ends:

Protocols and Equipment

Adoption of a voluntary standard for AMR system interoperability in large part has faltered because of a lack of coordination among state PUCs, standards committees, vendors and the energy companies themselves, according to Rush. At the utilities, lack of coordination is twofold. Not only do utilities and ESPs need to work together, but so do personnel within the gas companies. Often these personnel are sequestered in corporate departments, focused on AMR or SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition). They don't interact on interoperability issues.

"That's one of the activities of GAIN, to get some of the key utilities to talk to each other," says Rush. "We're doing that via email."

"GRI has been involved since early on with IGT and the GAIN program," says Marlon McClinton, vice president and general manager of distribution and end-use programs. "We see some compatibility in GAIN's efforts, with their focus on working with individual gas companies and our comprehensive approach industry-wide." GRI's work with EPRI to develop the UCA protocol is part of its broad program to improve utilities' data communications. (See sidebar, "Open Architecture: How to Make a Market.")

Rush, who has been working in integrated automation since 1981, also participates in industry standards committees, representing the interests of gas suppliers. He chairs IEEE SCC31, the standards committee of the Automated Meter Reading Association (AMRA), which he co-founded.

"There are something like 25 standards committees working in the area of utilities interoperability," he explains. "Everybody had a different idea of how to approach the standard and felt his was the main concern. But the utilities are the ultimate purchasers of this equipment who do have a need to put it all together."

According to Rush, all the work of the standards committees is useless if the utilities and ESPs don't translate it into purchase decisions.

"GAIN is going to remind the chairs of the standards groups that the only reason we exist is to serve utilities. So one of our missions is to get the standards groups to work together," he says.

In light of that mission, three technical groups have formed an alliance to work toward an interoperability standard: IEEE SCC31(AMRA's Standards Committee), Measurement Canada and the American National Standards Institute. The groups meet quarterly in joint sessions.

The alliance already has accomplished several major initiatives. The adoption in July of its standard, "Tables,"