Despite a recent delay, the stage
appears set for online trading
in electric transmission capacity.
THIS IS ONLY A TEST (EM FOR NOW.
But come January, if all goes well, the OASIS program will start up in real time, with customers venturing onto the Internet to place reservations for capacity on the nation's electric transmission grid.
For a decade that began with industry opposition to open transmission, the change is remarkable. Open access? Just say "node."
The test begins December 2, 1996, as hundreds of utilities begin marketing transmission capacity on an experimental basis through their Open-access Same-time Information System (OASIS). It's the real-time startup for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order 889, issued last spring, and for a "new era" for transmission providers and marketers. The order requires utilities to provide transmission customers with electronic access to available capacity, tariffs, and other information.
The test was slated to begin November 1, but in late September the FERC delayed the startup for a month to allow transmission owners, OASIS vendors, and others to respond to changes proposed by the "How Working Group," and a subsequent FERC order issuing revised standards and protocols. See, OASIS and Standards of Conduct, FERC Dkt. No. RM95-9-000, Sept. 20, 1996 (Order Granting Request for Extension of Time).
Many utilities had supported the request for an extension, including Centerior, El Paso Electric, Salt River Project, and Tucson Electric. So did Electric Clearinghouse, Inc. and Enron Power Marketing, Inc., but those two also opposed any move by the FERC to delay implementation of standards of conduct. Meanwhile, Siemens Power Systems Control and ISSC, Inc. had announced on September 10 that, one way or another, they expected to be ready to meet or exceed the FERC's Phase I OASIS requirements by November 1. They said they didn't see any benefit in the postponement (em either for utilities or for vendors ("solution providers") trying to get a jump on the market.
Technology: A Set of Unknowns
While it aims to increase competition and lower consumer prices by as much as $5.4 billion annually, OASIS raises questions.
For instance, OASIS will mark the first time that transmission service providers must calculate available transmission capacity (ATC) and total transmission capacity (TTC).
Some unknowns will likely be resolved by the FERC when it begins to tackle phase two. Others require tests of the technology and of the front- or back-room processes that kick in once a user, via the Internet, determines if capacity is available.
This is how Norris Peterson of Cegelec ESCA Corp. describes OASIS in action: A customer requests a seat on your "airline" from one point to the next. There are dozens of waypoints. Her request is affected by thousands of other customers asking for a seat (em simultaneously. And unfortunately, customers may only be making reservations, like they did on nine other "airlines," to get the best price at the right "departure" time.
That's not all.
Once a request for a transmission reservation comes in over an OASIS system, what does a provider do with it? So far, those working with OASIS systems say, few are prepared to easily calculate ATC or TTC. Scheduling and billing transmission also hasn't been at the top of providers' lists.
What about security boundaries? As the systems mature, and transmission providers try to squeeze more human interaction out of their back-end routing schemes, will OASIS and its linked processing systems miss transmission requests? Will lawsuits result?
Until technology takes over transmission control room flowcharts and spreadsheets, utilities worry about increased workloads and OASIS traffic. A few observers speculate that the traffic could prompt users and providers to lease high-speed 56 kilobit, T1, or even T3 phone lines to connect their locations.
Finally, there's the issue of competitive advantage. If power marketers and utilities accessing transmission providers' OASIS retrieve information at different speeds (em over a T3 line versus a 28.8 baud modem, say (em is there inherent advantage? (Order 889 says companies can subscribe to higher bandwidth at their cost.)
Answers to these questions come from people like Peterson, whose company, in late August, was embroiled in what must be the most ambitious OASIS project (em an effort that cuts across six NERC (North American Electric Reliability Council) regions. Meanwhile, utilities working with other vendors have built stand-alone solutions, entering service earlier to learn. Most of these vendors have a long track record of working on energy management systems. They offer more answers (em and new questions.
Startups: Too Little Time
The ambitious OASIS project, called the Joint Transmission Services Information Network (JTSIN), unites 250 member companies that control about 40 percent of U.S. transmission-line mileage. Members of JTSIN include the New England Power Pool (NEPOOL), East-Central Area Reliability Coordinate Agreement (ECAR), Mid-Continent Area Power Pool (MAPP), Southwest Power Pool (SPP), Mid-American Interconnect Network (MAIN), and Virginia/ Carolinas Reliability Council (VACAR).
JTSIN's OASIS endeavor contrasts with that of the Western Systems Coordinating Council (WSCC), a "quagmire of people trying to decide what the heck to do," says Jeff Geltz, information services manager of New England Power Co. and JTSIN
Geltz says JTSIN is getting feedback from large marketing organizations, independent power producers, public power, and the FERC. "Other people have been to vendors, trying to wade through 889 to figure it out alone," he says. JTSIN's approach saves money and wins on consistency: "The industry in aggregate would have spent a ton of money if they had all gone off in their own directions and tried to develop their own OASIS programs. Not only that, they would have ended up with the Tower of Babel syndrome they have in the natural gas industry with everyone developing their own bulletin board."
Geltz wouldn't disclose the JTSIN system's cost. But he does offer one observation: "The utility industry in the United States will certainly spend several million trying to get to November 1. There's no question about that."
JTSIN's OASIS offers members a common look and feel and one log-on security system. Everything is "equalized" to ensure against competitive advantage. For example, there's no "default choice" for someone requesting capacity; users must search the directory for a provider's name when they access the system. However, each OASIS screen only displays 18 transmission providers at a time, requiring users to scroll down for others listed alphabetically (em and perhaps placing transmission provider Z at a disadvantage.
"If there are any implicit advantages, they certainly haven't been designed into the system," Geltz says. Most users are not expected to navigate screens. They'll "surf" the application initially, Geltz says, calling up different providers in search of the best deal. But over time, users will come to know where they get the best price, and they'll make their deals directly by file transfer. Implicit advantages "will go away."
Although JTSIN is working on an application program interface that will help with back-end processing, Geltz says he suspects most transmission providers haven't given it much thought. "I think they're going to wait and see what the realities of [December] bring," he says.
As JTSIN members and users figure out the business process and the technology simultaneously, can difficulties be avoided?
"We don't have enough time," Geltz says. "Particularly in phase one, we haven't been given enough time to get the applications up and running, never mind trying to get everyone comfortable with what's happening.
"We're putting up Chinese walls in the affiliate organizations and we're changing an awful lot of things. And no matter how much we preach there may be organizations that say 'What? Internet? OASIS? How do you spell it? And can I get at it with my 1,200 baud modem?'"
Northern Indiana Public Service Co. (NIPSCO), a $1.7-billion utility working with ECAR to bring its OASIS node on line, understands what it's like to be two months away from implementation and know almost nothing.
"There's a kind of panic," says Joseph C. Dobes, NIPSCO operations manager-transmission. "Well, maybe not a panic, but there is some concern." In late August, Dobes's employees had attended a workshop or two. He admitted it would be difficult for his small staff to maintain hourly capacity and pricing information. "Even now, we're receiving calls from marketers and neighboring utilities on the use of our transmission system."
Phil Hoffer, a system operations engineer with American Electric Power Corp. (AEP), says his company got involved with JTSIN to move en masse with the industry, and gain compatibility.
"Individual utilities can still remain competitive because there are still intelligent systems we can develop on the front end to leave us in a competitive place in the market," he says. "The biggest thing we're doing internally is packaging all our data and
sending it to the OASIS, the JTSIN OASIS at ECAR. Because we have so many interconnections, our volume of data is probably more than a lot of utilities. . . . We're certainly not going to be able to do manual entry."
The Future: More than Transmission
Ali Ipakchi is manager of power application software at ABB Systems Control, AEP's contractor to automate its interface with the JTSIN OASIS. ABB won its first OASIS contract in May with Nevada Power Co., and has contracts with the New York Power Pool and the Salt River Project, which also includes Southern California Edison Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.
Ipakchi says AEP is looking at the long run. For his utility, the OASIS stands for more than transmission. AEP is thinking of phase-two activities (em doing more trading over OASIS. The utility also is leaving options open, perhaps to have its own server. "Right now, with the timing of November 1 [since postponed; see above], everybody is basically feeling 'We'll endorse our regional solution, see how it goes,'" Ipakchi says.
AEP has assigned an OASIS operator to respond to queries and has begun defining roles, responsibilities, and processes that come with OASIS. "They have come up with a very elaborate flowcharting of the process by which reservations should go through," Ipakchi says. "And they're automating things, including having an internal e-mail system connected to their response facility so if a transaction has to be processed by a planning department, appropriate notices will be sent and tracked and alarmed."
One utility that has had an operational OASIS since June is PECO Energy Co. Its vendor is National Systems & Research Co. The company created the OmniPath system, also used by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
John McDonald, PECO's transmission management group director, says power marketers and others have been accessing the site since the utility's tariff was posted. Users download it automatically.
"It saved us from sending out a bundle of copies," McDonald says. "It's a cost savings, if you've ever tried to publish these documents and then try to get out and mail them. We probably had over 100 hits on our site just when we published the tariff."
PECO Energy has seven service agreements so far under its tariff. "No one has taken service yet, but we're up there and running," McDonald says.
McDonald doesn't see any security leakage from the OASIS to the back end of the system. He believes there always will be people on phones and faxes in the back room.
"Conditions change each day and someone has to be in charge to make sure we're not going to overload a line," he says. "When you purchased for tomorrow it was fine looking at it today, but overnight, a storm could have gone through and knocked out a line. So now there are certain restrictions. We don't want to create what's happening in the West."
PECO has learned that some browser software doesn't "talk" well with its OASIS. And that for some customers, it takes seconds to download the tariff. For those with slower modems it takes minutes.
To avoid these scenarios, Hoffer thinks transmission providers will opt for more robust interconnections than the Internet provides, possibly a separate "intranet." Others, like Geltz, suggest that users will choose high-speed leased lines, which again, he reminds, may offer implicit competitive advantages, but not advantages inherent to OASIS.
Ipakchi says there are three issues utilities have yet to cover in carrying out OASIS.
OASIS, however, is a solved problem, not a technical challenge, he claims. He sees the issue of correctly computing ATC as a problem utilities will address using different approaches. But as OASIS servers become operational, everybody will have to look into what they are posting on the system. Why? Because there's no unified approach on how to calculate ATC in the industry.
Another hot spot is that some regional servers may not be sized for peak loads. What kind of delays will there be, especially at peak emergency conditions? "Maybe there's a major outage and everyone's trying to access the system to secure short-term contracts for access on transmission," he says. Will the turnaround time on the server be sufficient for conducting business or will people rely on telephones?
The third item also sits on the utility side. Will utilities be equipped to fold OASIS in as an integral element of their operations?
Technology is part of the answer, but as standardization comes and users download information, will the process for handling a request for capacity be handled systematically?
"That whole process to respond to a request is a process not well understood at many utilities, or they don't have procedures defining it," Ipakchi says.
Security may be a fourth issue. Ipakchi says there's enough
"firewalling" for security, and that the boundary between the operation of a transmission line and the scheduling of commerce on the Internet shouldn't pose a problem.
The issue of an authorized user requesting access and getting that access granted and confirmed will define the process in the utility operation.
"That whole process is something utilities have to pay attention to," says the ABB executive. "And my feeling is, in the short run, that we will have some mishaps at utilities. They may keep it under cover and not publicize it, but soon everyone has to formalize how they're going to handle these things."
Blackouts would be the ultimate failure. But providers granting more capacity than they actually have seems much more likely. Also, a provider could miss a request and fail to process it, possibly ending up in litigation.
Peterson at Cegelec ESCA Corp., one of three vendors on the JTSIN project, sees OASIS activity as the biggest unknown.
The level of activity on transmission schedules, interchanges, and deals is 10 times what it was five years ago, he points out.
"We're familiar with utilities' level of activity and how many schedules they have, and the increases, but I think here it's how ready people will be on the power marketing side and how they'll play the game.'
What's different from the past is that nearly all the energy movement has been utility controller to controller, dispatcher to dispatcher, on a cost basis. Utilities and marketers are gearing up for trading floors and incentives. Now there will be more negotiating on price. "It's not going to be cost-based. It's going to be 'What can I get it for?'"
That's what OASIS will be about. And something far more similar to an airline reservation system then providers and users may want to believe. t
Joseph F. Schuler, Jr. is an associate editor of PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY.
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