With so much at stake, why don't utilities ask vendors for plug and play?
Everyone agrees that competitive retail energy markets need interoperable information systems. Otherwise, the high cost of switching proprietary metering and data communications systems could offset savings from customer choice. Standardization reduces the costs of automating operations - also crucial for competitive companies. Interoperable "plug and play" systems can free companies of dependence on expensive, single-sourced equipment. So why do most utility systems remain incompatible from vendor to vendor?
On the electric side, state utility regulators have sanctioned various collaborative working groups to develop standards and interoperable systems in metering, billing and managing customer accounts. Yet the gas industry remains deadlocked. The main bottleneck? Gas utilities and energy service providers aren't asking vendors for plug-and-play systems, so the manufacturers see no payoff in providing them.
"There's no recognition by utilities that this is possible," adds Bill Rush, Ph.D., assistant institute physicist at the Institute of Gas Technology. He acknowledges that with automated meter reading (AMR), gas systems pose more challenges than electric equipment because they must rely on an external power supply. Yet he believes that interoperability among gas component devices is technically feasible. And rather than being cost-prohibitive, says Rush, "I'm willing to argue that the cost is probably zero or negative."
That's because many design decisions are neutral, he explains. Interoperable systems could be phased in over time, costing no more than systems that aren't plug and play - and which will be obsolete within a few years.