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Special Section On Metering: Thinking Smart

Legislation and technology developments give a jump-start to smart metering
Fortnightly Magazine - April 2006

Spokane, Wash. “For AMI to be successful, we must implement standards. That will be the biggest challenge.”

Metering vendors have put forth significant efforts to develop uniform standards. Several industry groups, such as the OpenAMI Task Force, are working to forge standards for open architecture and interoperability that will allow the greatest possible degree of flexibility, manufacturing efficiency and forward compatibility as new features and technologies evolve. However, these efforts themselves have revealed persistent schisms over what functions, communications protocols, and data-management approaches should be included in AMI standards.

“The difficulty is that if it’s not an open-architecture system, utilities will be forced to accept one type of technology and live with it,” Fisher says.

But even defining “open-architecture” and its role in developing AMI standards can spark debate among various stakeholders. Some emphasize the importance of standardizing certain features and functions, while others focus on communications technologies and data protocols.

“It’s important to embrace broadly supported standards,” says Stephen D. Johnston, CEO of Smart Synch in Jackson, Miss. “For example, Internet Protocol (IP) is a key standard. The Internet is here to stay, and IP means you can talk to any device in the field. The same principle applies to GSM or GPRS wireless standards. We know they will be around for a long time.”

Others are skeptical about the potential for standards to bring uniformity to the industry. “This industry is in a state of evolution,” says Sharon Allan, chief knowledge officer at Elster Electricity in Raleigh, N.C. “There’s a gravitation toward IP, for example, but IP has overhead, and most people encapsulate it and encrypt it. Having IP in a meter doesn’t make it universally interfaceable.”

Intelligent Grid

As a result of diverging interests and perspectives, utilities are challenged to weigh the functionality of systems today against the risk those systems might become outdated sooner than their owners would prefer. Such is the curse of technology in general, of course. And thus while questions of open architecture and durable platforms merit considering, utilities who are serious about AMI will not be paralyzed by this curse.

“Utilities are considering their metering investment plans in context of where they are going strategically and tactically,” Allan says. “Based on that, they can reasonably predict what functions they will need.”

Even amid differences in perspectives and technical approaches to smart metering, one common thread is the trend toward a more intelligent and powerful distribution network. One factor driving the success of AMI arises from the fact that it brings intelligence all the way into the customer premises, where it can serve many practical purposes. In the wake of EPACT, companies are evaluating those purposes carefully, and trying to identify technologies that might help them achieve their smart-metering goals.

“I don’t think any one technology is a silver bullet,” Soethe says. “Differences in geography and customer types, and customer needs, require different solutions. Utilities just need to consider what’s right for them, and pick one.”