SAN JOSE, Calif. The U.S. government is grappling with one of the first big snags in the wake of awarding $4 billion in grants to build a smart electric grid. It could take years before there are any low cost appliances for Joe Consumer to plug into an intelligent power network.
The vision of a smart grid includes smart appliances that automatically turn on or off in response to fluctuating energy prices as electric demand peaks and troughs. Intelligent fridges, dryers and other energy hogs could help utilities reduce their needs for new power plants, help consumers save money and ease stress on the environment.
To enable this so-called demand response application, appliance makers need an easy, low cost way to plug into the grid. Today they face as many as a dozen wired and wireless choices, most of them far too expensive and high bandwidth, focused on carrying digital music and video around the home.
In an effort to fill the gap, a senior government technologist laid down the gauntlet before a recent gathering of powerline networking engineers: create a standard to plug appliances into tomorrow's smart grid soon--or Uncle Sam may do it for you.
Industry representatives at the meeting said the government is over-stepping its boundaries. Forcing the handful of powerline technologies in the market to converge makes no sense, they added.
Government planners knew a lack of standards was one of the big issues preventing the move to a digital, networked power grid. Before its first economic stimulus grant went out, it spent $10 million to launch a new smart grid standards effort organized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
NIST is now reviewing industry feedback on a first draft framework for smart grid standards. As a next step, NIST convened in Denver in mid-November a so-called Smart Grid Interoperability Panel of diverse stakeholders to drive the standards work forward.
SGIP includes fifteen Priority Action Plan committees focused on some of the thorniest standards issues ahead. At the first meeting of the PAP-15 group focused on powerline home networks, the national coordinator of smart grid standards at NIST, George Arnold, gave the group his ultimatum.
"It was a pretty competitive group to put in one room," quipped Arnold. "I almost thought I would have to hire a security guard."
In the meeting Arnold said NIST could use its experience selecting the AES security standard as a model for creating a technology bake-off for a low cost powerline standard for smart appliances.
"The moment where he most needed a security guard was when he said if you guys can't get together [on a standard], NIST will decide," said Stefano Galli, a lead scientist at Panasonic R&D Co. of America who attended the meeting. "There was an uproar.
"Big companies feel this weight of a government decision is not beneficial," said Galli who also co-chairs an IEEE task force exploring communications standards for the smart grid. "A premature convergence of the home network could create more problems than it solves," he added.
"I would rather let the market decide, and I think the 70 companies in the HomePlug Alliance would rather have the market decide, too," said Rob Ranck, president of HomePlug which has released multiple generations of home powerline networking standards. "We've met with [regulators], the Department of Energy and Congressional staff members and there doesn't seem to be a clear consensus that [picking a standard] is NIST's role," he said.
"If you go back to the legislation that supports NIST, it talks about interoperability, but it's not clear whether it sets up the federal government to pick a single winner," Ranck added.
The industry has tried and failed for years to set a single powerline home networking standard. After four years of work, the IEEE 1901 group is about to finalize a standard that essentially blesses multiple powerline physical layers and media access controllers.
The stakes are as high as the difficulties. The government is keen to ensure its $4 billion in recent smart grid grants is money well spent. Many of the projects include pilot projects in demand response systems.
White goods giant Whirlpool Corp. made a high-profile promise last fall that it will ship in 2011 a million dryers ready to plug into the smart grid—if there is a suitable networking standard the company can use.
"The last thing I want to see is a Wall Street Journal article a year from now saying Whirlpool had to renege on its promise because of the lack of a standard," said Arnold.
From NIST's perspective, "the ideal would be to have one wired and one wireless standard," Arnold told EE Times.
Members of competing Wi-Fi and Zigbee trade groups also attended the meetings in Denver. Some expressed they disagreed with the idea of a single wireless standard—even if their approach was picked.