Assessing the interface: Industrial customers and the utility

Two factors should be high priorities for the engineer designing industrial control systems and their utility interface.

09/11/2012


For years, some have assumed that the interval or “smart” meter would be the interface between an industrial customer and the utility. In other words, that communications data, curtailment requests, generation requests, and price signals would all occur through an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system.



Based on an assessment of the systems themselves and the needs of industrial customers, however, the AMI approach may not be the only, or even the most desired, interface. And those two factors should be high priorities for the consulting specifying engineer designing industrial control systems and their utility interface.



This issue has big implications for industrial customers because the design and features and functions of their industrial control system is going to depend on which direction they take. 

 

Let me explain. First, the bidirectional communications that a smarter grid will require can be handled independently of the interval meter AMI. Second, meters and AMI are largely proprietary systems, potentially leading an industrial customer to vendor lock-in. Third, it’s early in the AMI industry and technical alternatives exist. Consequently, there will be winners and losers; if a utility’s AMI vendor goes belly-up or migrates to different technology, that could mean stranded assets for the customer.

 

A different approach would use the meter solely to record usage and employ a separate appliance or gateway for bidirectional communications.

 

This approach has several advantages, besides avoiding dreaded vendor lock-in and stranded assets. One advantage is that the gateway could use a high-speed Internet connection rather than be hobbled by the communication limitations of the AMI. Or the gateway could use dedicated communication lines to the electric utility, providing greater bandwidth for greater functionality. The appliance-as-portal option also gives the industrial user more flexibility for interconnections with other systems and, therefore, the data for greater insight into its operations.

 

Today, AMI protocols are vendor specific. If you purchase a meter from vendor X, you must also purchase the data collection and protocol system from vendor X. In contrast, the gateway approach allows the utility and the industrial customer to immediately employ industry standard protocols such as IEEE Standard 1815 (aka DNP3), which provides the means for robust security.

 

What remains uncertain at this point is whether both options will be available from the utility. Consulting specifying engineers and their industrial customers should discuss this issue with the utility. If both options are available, then compare the two options’ costs, design challenges, features, and functions, taking into account the projected future needs of the industrial customer.

 

It’s important to understand that the cost-benefit ratio for AMI remains unproven; it’s still being evaluated. Much of the current deployment of AMI has been subsidized by 50% by the U.S. Dept. of Energy’s Smart Grid Initiative Grants in the US. Without those incentives, it is unclear whether the deployments will continue to spread, or be profitable. Some state regulators remain unconvinced that AMI is a cost-effective expenditure of rate payers' money.

 

Finally, because smart meters and AMI are a programmable system, greater potential exists for hackers accessing the system, a threat that has already been observed as noted in my previous blog.

 

Perceived, widespread AMI adoption alone is not a good basis for an engineer to make an assessment of whether that's an appropriate technology choice. He or she needs to make a professional judgment about the systems themselves, and their technical capabilities, and not be swayed by the apparent spread of AMI systems. Talk to the utility to which you are designing your customer’s interconnection. You may find that other, more “future-proof” alternatives are available.


Sam Sciacca, PE, senior member of IEEE, president of SCS Consulting LLC, Winsted, Conn.Sam Sciacca is an active senior member in the IEEE and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in the area of utility automation. He has more than 25 years of experience in the domestic and international electrical utility industries. Sciacca serves as the chair of two IEEE working groups that focus on cyber security for electric utilities: the Substations Working Group C1 (P1686) and the Power System Relay Committee Working Group H13 (PC37.240). Sciacca also is president of SCS Consulting.



No comments
Consulting-Specifying Engineer's Product of the Year (POY) contest is the premier award for new products in the HVAC, fire, electrical, and...
Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine is dedicated to encouraging and recognizing the most talented young individuals...
The MEP Giants program lists the top mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineering firms in the United States.
2014 Product of the Year finalists: Vote now; Boiler systems; Indirect cooling; Integrating lighting, HVAC
High-performance buildings; Building envelope and integration; Electrical, HVAC system integration; Smoke control systems; Using BAS for M&V
Pressure piping systems: Designing with ASME; Lab ventilation; Lighting controls; Reduce energy use with VFDs
Case Study Database

Case Study Database

Get more exposure for your case study by uploading it to the Consulting-Specifying Engineer case study database, where end-users can identify relevant solutions and explore what the experts are doing to effectively implement a variety of technology and productivity related projects.

These case studies provide examples of how knowledgeable solution providers have used technology, processes and people to create effective and successful implementations in real-world situations. Case studies can be completed by filling out a simple online form where you can outline the project title, abstract, and full story in 1500 words or less; upload photos, videos and a logo.

Click here to visit the Case Study Database and upload your case study.

Protecting standby generators for mission critical facilities; Selecting energy-efficient transformers; Integrating power monitoring systems; Mitigating harmonics in electrical systems
Commissioning electrical systems in mission critical facilities; Anticipating the Smart Grid; Mitigating arc flash hazards in medium-voltage switchgear; Comparing generator sizing software
Integrating BAS, electrical systems; Electrical system flexibility; Hospital electrical distribution; Electrical system grounding
As brand protection manager for Eaton’s Electrical Sector, Tom Grace oversees counterfeit awareness...
Amara Rozgus is chief editor and content manager of Consulting-Specifier Engineer magazine.
IEEE power industry experts bring their combined experience in the electrical power industry...
Michael Heinsdorf, P.E., LEED AP, CDT is an Engineering Specification Writer at ARCOM MasterSpec.