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No Pain, No Gain: Interoperable Systems Elude Gas Industry

Fortnightly Magazine - October 1 1999

"GAIN is geared towards the gas utility because participation from gas utilities is quite low in the AMR standards area," she says.

But complete industry-wide integrated automation - allowing data communications among such market participants as the utilities, suppliers of gas, electricity and water, meter service providers and data management agents - is not as far off as it might seem, according to Rush.

"Once they decide they want it, it will move relatively fast," he says. Backed by industry demand, he predicts, industry integration could happen in 10 years. But several factors have kept gas companies from recognizing the potential of integrated automation.

"Some say it would be more expensive because of complex protocols," explains Rush, "but as a matter of religious faith, I don't believe it. And test results show that it is more than just my blind belief."

Two tests of which Rush is aware measured the cost of integrated automation. The tests compared a vendor's proprietary protocol with a standard protocol, and measured the difference in system speed in one test and memory requirements in the other. The standardized protocol was faster and required less system memory.

Another reason gas companies haven't pursued integrated automation is a lack of information about the options, says Rush. He says the issue remains low-profile due to its heavily technical nature, and because interoperability is an orphan concern at many companies, it tends to fall between the cracks. Rush says consideration of the issue belongs with top management as part of an enterprise-wide vision.

"This issue is important from an operations perspective, because of matters of cost and obsolescence, and at the corporate strategy level, because if you box yourself in, you can't buy and sell business units or take advantage of business opportunities with the same freedom as if you had interoperable systems," says Rush.

"As the CEO, you may not know [the details of the standardization technology] but you should understand that your company needs to buy equipment that's interoperable."

Regina R. Johnson is managing editor at Public Utilities Fortnightly.

Open Architecture: How to Make a Market

GRI would bring vendors and utilities together.

"It's what we call a Catch 22," says Dr. Kiran Kothari, principal project manager of the Gas Research Institute's distribution operations and end-use business unit. "Utilities say no vendors are providing the service and vendors say no one is demanding it.

"To resolve this revolving roadblock to gas industry open architecture, GRI's distribution automation program is working with manufacturers and vendors to demonstrate the benefits of devices designed according to Utility Communications Architecture (UCA) open architecture guidelines. The UCA is close to being published as a technical document by IEEE SCC36. The published technical report will provide a resource for any vendors to use for implementing in equipment design and for gas companies in specifying equipment purchases.

Explains Kothari, "We are conducting workshops at utilities to tell them about what we're doing so that the UCA standard becomes implemented and requested by gas companies.

"GRI recently completed a field evaluation of UCA applications at Pacific Gas