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The smart grid and the slippery business of setting industry standards.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2011

clearly defining the ‘how’ in terms of interoperability goals … and [not] specifying or adopting technical standards as mandatory.” (Reply comments, p. 5, filed, April 25, 2011.)

Alvin Pak, senior regulatory counsel at San Diego Gas & Electric, questioned in comments filed April 8 whether any set of standards can even hope to remain relevant:

“Every process with which SDG&E has been involved,” he wrote, “was governed by the abiding concession that commercial interests and the creativity that fathers technological innovation would outrun any written standards, no matter the level of expertise and effort the parties invested… [T]he commission can most effectively encourage the continuous and timely development of interoperability standards by resisting any temptation to adopt strict, mandatory regulations.”

NIST’s George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid interoperability, said as much when he testified at the January conference: “If FERC says that the intent is to make the standards mandatory, we will have no standards.”

Maybe so, but then why did Congress instruct FERC to open a rulemaking to adopt standards?

It didn’t help to clarify the process that, during of the time that NIST project participants were reviewing the first five standards—checking them for relevance, syntax, semantics, organizational and business goals, interoperability, cyber security, and forth—it turns out that the actual text of the standards themselves was nearly inaccessible to a significant portion of stakeholders.

So said Andrew Wright, chief technology officer for N-Dimensions Solutions, Inc., who testified at the January conference:

“The standards … have significant limitations to access… These limitations … discourage open review that might otherwise uncover cyber security vulnerabilities.”

Access was controlled by the Swiss-based International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which NIST commissioned to develop the first five sets of standards, before the much-improved SGIP process was begun at NIST. That made for problems, as Wright testified at the January conference:

“A complete electronic set of these standards,” he explained, “cost 10,738 Swiss francs, or a little over $11,000. Furthermore that gets you access to a copy that is restricted to use by one person.”

Southern Company’s Transmission Policy and Services General Manager John Lucas later noted in January, “We went and downloaded them in the past week, and rallied our subject matter experts to say, okay, we need you to look at these… Our cost was $25,000.”

This difficulty of access cast serious doubt on whether the standards had been vetted adequately, especially among stakeholders in the regulated community, who have expertise in electric system reliability, cyber security, and utility needs for backward compatibility with legacy software and equipment. It played a large role in leading nearly every conference participant to conclude, often under direct questioning from FERC chairman Jon Wellinghoff, that a “sufficient consensus” on the first five standards had definitely not been reached.

And on top of that, NIST was soon to offer more than six dozen additional standards for FERC consideration. (And on April 19, NIST announced a new meter upgradability standard, along with new guidelines for wireless communications. See “ Vendor Neutral .”)

The commissioners at the conference were left flummoxed.