Just after 4 pm on Thursday 14 August, 2003, a power outage cascaded through the north-east and mid-west of the USA and Ontario (Canada), leaving over 50 million people without electricity. Communications, transport and industry were all disrupted, with power only being restored in some areas two days later. Although the blackout was essentially a result of systems shutting down to protect the grid and its infrastructure, it was a dramatic illustration of what can happen if minimum and common standards of reliability are not in place and enforced.
Today, in Europe, as we move towards a new kind of ‘smart’ electricity grid, a stable framework is essential if we are to integrate energy from conventional, centralised generation sources. This is also necessary to accommodate energy from renewable sources, including large wind farms (mainly offshore) and smaller scale distributed sources, including photovoltaic, wind, biomass and combined heating and cooling. Distributed storage and electric vehicles will also increasingly be connected, both taking electricity from and supplying it to the grid. With just 45 milliseconds to respond to an interruption in supply, common standards on interconnectivity, safety, security and reliability, are imperative.
This is why, in March 2011, the European Commission issued its M/490 mandate to European Standards Organisations (ESOs)1 on the deployment of smart grids. The mandate comprises a common technical reference architecture, a set of consistent standards “which will support the information exchange […] and the integration of all users into the electric system operation,” and sustainable processes and tools to make sure that stakeholders can continue to work together to identify and fill any gaps. A first set of standards was required by the end of 2012, with annual revisions after that.
The standardisation framework will, says the Mandate, have to be “Comprehensive and integrated enough to embrace the whole variety of smart grid actors and ensure communications between them; In-depth enough to guarantee interoperability of smart grids from basic connectivity to complex distributed business applications, including a unified set of definitions so that all Members States have a common understanding of the various components of the smart grid; Flexible and fast enough to take advantage of the existing telecommunications infrastructure and services as well as the emergence of new technologies while enhancing competitiveness of the markets; and flexible enough to accommodate some differences between EU Member States’ approaches to smart grids deployment.”
The joint working group set up by three European Standards Organizations – the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC), the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ICT) – worked quickly, publishing a list of recommendations in mid-20112 and its final report in 2013.3
Speaking at the European Conference on Smart Grid Standardization Achievements in January 2013,4 Tore Trondvold, CENELEC President, outlined some of the challenges the ESOs have been faced with. “Standards are voluntary,” he explained. “Although the EU legislation can refer to European standards as a means of compliance with mandatory requirements, European standards that have been adopted and published also have to be adopted at national level by standards organisations in all 34 member states. Any conflicting national standards have to be redrawn, but without withdrawing them.” The trade-off, though, is that Europe-wide standards can provide “barrier-free access to the internal market for over 600 million customers.”
At the same conference, Ralph Sporer, Chairman of the CEN/CENELEC/ETSI Smart Grid Coordination Group, explained that, in an effort to seek wide input for their work, they had asked various stakeholders what they expected from a first set of standards. The result was a set of five requirements: that standards should be easy to use, should include all stakeholders, be comprehensive (showing available and future standards), be ‘future proof’ and have international outreach – in other words, not offer a “Europe-only approach”.
Dovetailing European standards with international standards, where possible, also helps to foster the competitiveness of European industry. “Smart grids can have a very positive impact on economic recovery in Europe,” said Luis Jorge Romero Saro, ETSI Director General, at last year’s EC conference on standardization achievements. “But to ensure interoperability across borders, we need common standards. These will be a key factor in its success.” EC Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, gave a concrete example of how this applies to the smart grid. “Electrical equipment can be given remote instructions,” he said, “like a washing machine filled with dirty washing that is only switched on when the electricity price has reached a low level. For these machines to work properly we need one information and communication technology (ICT), one electro-technology, where everything is interconnected. Washing machines are no longer national, they are European. There have to be common standards and compatibility.” The same reasoning applies to the European electricity grid, he explained. “This is the only way we can guarantee and retain the internal market.”
Common standards are also high on the list of considerations for research and development on smart grids beyond 2020 to 2035, as outlined in the Strategic Research Agenda for 2035 of the European Technology Platform, SmartGrids.5 “Due to the massively changing nature of the grid users,” says the Agenda, “with generation becoming less controllable and consumption becoming more controllable, the architecture of the involved transmission and distribution grids and their interaction will need to change. Adapted legal frameworks must go along with this evolution of the electric system and grids. This means that the tasks, obligations and business activities of those actors that will intervene in the electric system must be clearly defined. The existing interfaces between today’s unbundled regulated grid monopolies and competitive business activities will be challenged due to the closer technical interactions among all system actors.”
The vision to 2020 for industry, says the report, allows for an inevitable degree of incompatibility at component level, as new technologies are developed and proven. But, after 2020, common standards will be increasingly critical. “Until approximately 2020,” says the SmartGrids Research Agenda, “solutions for these challenges are mostly component, single-point related. They work, but cannot be integrated with each other or with similar or competitive systems. They are not modular, are not based on standards. There is the danger of technology lock-in, which is not very desirable. For the 2020 SmartGrids based system, the pilots and small-scale rollouts are justified in this phase of ‘proof of principle’ and ‘proof of concept’. But for a large-scale rollout by 2035 these systems must be able to co-operate and be interchangeable.”
Pat Rabitte, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources for the Republic of Ireland, in his keynote speech to the 2013 conference on Standardization Achievements for the Smart Grid summarised the importance of common standards for European industry. “Huge investment is necessary to smarten the grid,” he said. “This is resulting in a global business opportunity of huge importance for Europe. But one of the biggest impediments has been the lack of proper standards for the adoption of new technology. The lack of standards adds significant risk to technology selection, leads to increased costs, and the risk of security issues arising. Standards are essential for smart grid interoperability.”