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No Pain, No Gain: Interoperable Systems Elude Gas Industry

Fortnightly Magazine - October 1 1999

as a Canadian regulation is chief among its triumphs. As of Jan. 1, 2001, all new electric meter designs sold in Canada must comply with the standard. What the requirement means for vendors, says Rush, is that "either you'll support the new standard, abandon the Canadian market, or continue to market an old design forever. Only the first choice looks realistic to me. And once manufacturers start making standard-compliant equipment for Canada, they will start selling it in the U.S."

The Tables protocol is a way of organizing reporting data in a standardized, tabular format. The standard allows the required flexibility for systems interoperability because regardless of the technology or organization of data inside the meter, the data can be transmitted to other systems in a consistent way.

Rush says the standard has been adopted by IEEE and ANSI, and he's recommending that GAIN members put it into their purchase specifications.

Another step toward its objective was the alliance's identification and organization of all interfaces in the gas supplier's overall system architecture.

"This chunks the problem up into little pieces, so we [can assign] committees for each of those areas," Rush explains. In the AMR system alone, dozens of standards are needed, so the accomplishment is significant.

In addition to its work with the standards alliance, GAIN also is working to accelerate AMR system interoperability and automation integration through its members.

"The real driver is checkbooks," says Rush. "We're going for the biggest log in the jam; that is, to push manufacturers to supply interoperable systems through utilities' purchase orders."

GAIN is promoting this demand by gas companies in two ways: by providing information on which developing standards appear most likely to be adopted and helping gas suppliers to develop a migration strategy for buying interoperable systems. In addition, GAIN's website provides guidelines, recommendations and evaluation criteria for purchasing integrated automation equipment.

For Utilities, Ask and You Shall Receive?

Obstacles still stand in the way of gas industry integration. Regulators have taken a limited approach to open architecture, with little emphasis on integrating operations for efficient distribution. Manufacturers haven't made much progress in offering equipment designed to interoperate, and many are resistant to the concept.

"For the gas industry, only one vendor complies with [AMRA] standards," says Chang at SoCalGas.

"No vendor is going gung ho over plug and play," says Rush. "They would like to move much, much more slowly than I think GAIN members would." But, he adds, the equipment manufacturers do recognize that standardization is inevitable, and many participate on the AMRA's standards committee.

Rush insists that utilities and ESPs, which can most benefit from integrated automation, also are in the best position to help bring it about.

"If there were only one driving force for standards, it's utilities demanding them as a condition of purchase," he says. "If the utilities say, hey, we want it, the manufacturers could have it ready in five years."

According to Chang, GAIN's efforts to encourage gas companies to push for interoperable AMR equipment is what distinguishes it from other industry standards groups.