Why utilities should demand more from their networks (and what they should ask for)


Editor's note: I am one of many in our industry who have long called for open standards and interoperability. It continues to frustrate me that some utilities still don't take standards as seriously as they should.


No company has been banging the standards drum longer or louder than Silver Spring Networks. And yet, more than a decade later, standards are still not as entrenched as they need to be, as laid out below by SSN's CTO Raj Vaswani.


Take a moment to read his guest editorial below. Even those who disagree with some of his particulars will, I believe, be able to agree with his conclusion -- that utilities should demand more from their networks and their suppliers. -- Jesse Berst


By Raj Vaswani


The modernization of our global energy infrastructure may be the most significant undertaking our planet tackles in the 21st Century. Energy touches everything we do, every single day, in every corner of the globe. The improvement of our energy networks is essential to driving greater energy efficiency, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and accelerating worldwide economic and social progress - literally helping create a better life for billions of people around the world.


At the heart of this herculean task lies the concept of an intelligent network that can easily and rapidly absorb the myriad new devices and applications global innovation will create - in other words, a "smarter grid.” Like every great technology revolution before it, smart grids require a set of common technology standards to unleash their full potential. Standards enable interoperability, which in turn ensures that the broadest possible set of products reliably and securely work together. Customers benefit from greater choice because of heightened competition, aswell as higher-quality solutions, lower pricing, and reduced risk by avoiding vendor lock-in. Standards also open the market to new players and speed thepace of innovation for the benefit of consumers as a whole.


Networking technologies have existed for decades across many industries and are now widely deployed in a variety of enterprises. However, the smart grid network is unlike any other in the world. The controlled, easily accessible, indoor environment of traditional enterprise IT networks is dramatically different from that of the outdoor smart grid.


Among other things, these modern massive-scale energy networks need to:

·         Work all the time in unpredictable and harsh weather conditions, with equipment that must last in the field for up to 20years and can be difficult to physically access.

·         Be uniformly managed across tens of thousands of square miles, often on varied and topographically challenging terrain such as mountains or densely packed urban environments.

·         Support millions of end-points, and interoperate across a wide variety of devices, with unparalleled uptime. If a media delivery network fails, you might miss your favorite TV show; if a utility network fails, health and safety may be put at risk.

·         Be optimized for the machine-to-machine (M2M) communications of the future, allowing millions of devices to communicate directly with each other in peer-to-peer fashion and have the characteristics, such as low latency, needed to accommodate grid automation.


We have thus needed, and continue to need, to create a network platform unlike any that has existed before. Fortunately, the last few years of work on this problem have yielded a solution. Proven, real-world technologies and standards are fundamental to helping utilities deliver safe, reliable, environmentally conscious power in an economical fashion.

But choose with care

It is imperative, however, to choose these building blocks carefully. The need is urgent, and the consequences of failure acute - recent outages in India left 600 million people, approximately 10% of humanity, without power. Blindly repurposing enterprise and mobile network models and standards - with no significant track record in a smart grid environment - effectively turns time-critical projects into unbounded "science projects.” The smart grid is not an experiment, it demands focused execution.


The good news is that, in reality, standards-based smart grid networks have been in place for years and are already delivering results for utilities around theworld. Millions of homes and businesses worldwide are already connected to standards-based platforms. And hundreds of companies are already working together to deploy and refine the technology standards for the future.


Utilities and energy providers have every right to demand that their smart grid network be built upon standardized technologies that have been proven to work in the utility environment. And to be unequivocal in requiring a smart grid partner that has demonstrated a track record of understanding and delivering these technologies against their environment and business issues.


So, to get specific, utilities investing in energy networks are entitled to ask some fundamental questions when evaluating technology partners:


·         Do they have a proven track record of standards-based technologies in the field, at the scale required for the energy networks of the future? Scale deployments of such technologies, delivering benefits daily, abound - the right partner should readily be able to provide multiple such references.

·         Is their ecosystem diverse and comprehensive? Open platforms attract a broad cross-section of the industry and deliver more choice and innovation for customersâ€"the right partner should be able to support multiple third-party solutions across all segments of the Smart Grid (Advanced Metering, Distribution Automation, Demand Side Management, and Applications Software).

·         What is their heritage in adapting, leading and developing standards for the smart grid? New market entrants, as well as slow to react incumbents, have responded to the industry’s shift towards standards by simply listing an ever larger "alphabet soup” of ostensible standards support - the right partner should have embraced standards from the outset, tuned these over time in the harsh reality of smart grid deployments, and contributed this experience back via participation and leadership in global standards bodies.

The opportunity we have before us is immense. The impact of our work profound.

So demand more: demand proven, reliable standards and an ecosystem that is delivering real benefits today.


Our future depends on it.


Raj Vaswani, Chief Technology Officer, has been with Silver Spring Networks since 2003. Prior to joining Silver Spring, Raj was an Entrepreneur in Residence with Foundation Capital. Prior to Foundation Capital, Raj served as Vice President of Engineering at Epinions.com (now shopping.com), a high-traffic consumer-oriented Web site. Previously, Raj was Senior Scientist and Director of Engineering for the @Home Network (later Excite@Home). Raj's commitment to the environment extends to having a large oak tree in the center of his house, although he hugs it only sporadically.


More on standards...

Smart grid standards: progress today (and more on the way)

A call to action for global standards

Report: Promise of standards-based, multi-purpose utility networks finally arriving