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Enterprise Insights M2M Interoperability: Protocols Evolve to Meet Grid Requirements
Mar 11, 2012 – Tony Paine

There has been lots of discussion about how best to add the ‘smart’ into smartgrid – starting first with M2M interoperability between generation, distribution, transmission, and consumption within the electrical infrastructure. The Department of Energy calculates that our electrical grid comprises about 10,000 generating units with a generation capacity in excess of 1,000,000 megawatts of energy and over 300,000 miles of transmission lines. With a growing environmentally-conscious population and an increasing demand for energy, there needs to be serious M2M interoperability considerations when it comes to preparing for future requirements to support the grid’s infrastructure. 
 
M2M interoperability or connectivity technologies will be able to assist utility companies and technology providers to maximize use of their existing infrastructure. With costs estimated in the trillions once the grid is completed, and expenditures forecasted even higher if current generation plants and distribution facilities be shut down and replaced, it is certain that the population will not bear the cost to tear down buildings and homes to take advantage of the smart grid. Additionally, it is not feasible to start from the beginning and create a single standard or protocol to unify the elements of this ecosystem. Therefore our only option is to leverage what is already in place and retrofit pre-existing systems in a way that they interoperate and provide us with data to make smarter decisions.

The first step in creating a smarter grid was investing in an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). This technology enables utility companies to monitor energy usage in hourly intervals, which in turn provides them with the ability to base charges on whether energy is consumed during peak or non-peak times. It also enables consumers to determine the price of energy at any point in time. Smart meters have the ability to report power outages and quality of service through using an exchange of information between utility companies and consumers via the use of a protocol. Protocols help define the structure and transfer of information between entities.


A paradigm shift is underway in utilizing open protocols that provide M2M interoperability among vendors. The Internet Protocol Suite, which has global acceptance, will be the foundation for communications. Internet Protocols only provide lower-level communications interoperability at the network and transport layers. This in itself is important, because it allows vendors to select standardized components (such as Ethernet or Wi-Fi) to incorporate into their systems. These components can then be plugged into an existing infrastructure that is already connecting different players in the smart grid ecosystem. It is on top of these layers that systems and devices must build their application-level requirements, specifying the data and corresponding structure that will be exchanged.


The practice of creating application-level protocol requirements is not new to the power and building automation space. The power industry has its share of existing protocols allowing for M2M connectivity. In North America, DNP3 (Distributed Network Protocol) is used heavily in process automation for electric utilities, exchanging information between control centers, Remote Terminal Units (RTUs), and Intelligent Electronic Devices (IEDs). In Europe, the IEC 61850 protocol has been adopted and has similar functionality and characteristics as DNP3.

The building automation and control networks space includes BACnet, which is widely used in HVAC systems, lighting, security, and fire detection applications. In order to turn a building into a smarter building, the existing control and automation systems must interoperate with the smart grid.

Manufacturers are one of the largest consumers of energy. In order to automate the manufacturing process, M2M communications must occur among these various components. Much like the different components in a smart grid, each component utilizes its own protocol (which may be open and sometimes proprietary). The manufacturing industry was instrumental in creating OPC (Open Connectivity) as a standard. OPC is an abstraction layer between the different components and their underlying protocols. The latest version of OPC is known as OPC Unified Architecture (UA), and provides some of the same features that are required of the smart grid. OPC and UA helps retrofit proprietary-based systems into more open based systems and enables M2M communications, data sharing and real-time automated decision making. Power, building, and manufacturing markets’ standards and protocols are being evaluated closely to support the grid. Leveraging these protocols or building interoperable gateways will accelerate the grid’s creation.

Tony Paine is President and CEO of Kepware Technologies.


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