Embracing Disruption and Standards for the Sake of a Smart Grid

Posted by Mark Ryland 
National Standards Officer (USA)

Today is World Standards Day, a celebration whose theme this year is “Tackling climate change through standards.” I can’t help but think back a few days to a nondescript hotel conference room in a suburb of Washington, D.C. About 45 intelligent, opinionated, intense people from many industries gathered at the “invitation” (as in, “be there or else!”) of NIST, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce. Our job: work on the roadmap for the creation and evolution of a bunch of technical standards, very quickly, for the Smart Grid, the widely-anticipated computerized energy system of the future.

The Smart Grid is a vision of a secure, information-driven electrical system in which every device reports on and coordinates its power use and the system uses electric power from anywhere, including home solar panels and idle hybrid vehicles that sell extra battery power back to the grid. Realizing this vision could lower costs and increase energy efficiency. That’s why it’s not (just) a gee-whiz futuristic scenario but a major policy objective of the Obama Administration. Federal and state governments want the Smart Grid to become real really fast.

But there’s a problem. Bits and bytes need to flow across the Smart Grid between devices and systems from many suppliers. It must be a big, open platform, and that requires lots of standards. And although the voluntary standards system serves well in most circumstances, it’s not known for speed. Usually, standards trail, modify, and codify cutting-edge innovation and business practices, rather than drive or enable them. This is one of those unusual cases where the normal speed of standardization may not be good enough.

To its credit, the U.S. government has not succumbed to the temptation to create technical standards in a top-down, regulatory fashion. It knows that for the Smart Grid to succeed, all stakeholders need to participate, not just in meetings, but also by investing in cutting-edge products that show the value and make good on some of the initial promises of the Smart Grid.

And so a committed team at NIST is pushing hard to speed up the voluntary standards process. Many key players come from the utility industry, where stability, reliability, and control have been the watchwords. On the other side, information technology providers are chomping at the bit to deploy their products and services in exciting new ways. We’re the disruptive players, and disruption can be fun – when you’re the one doing it! That said, I’ve been deeply impressed by how the utilities’ representatives recognize and welcome the need for change; they may be a bit more cautious and careful, but they’re fully embracing the Smart Grid future.

To serve the Smart Grid, Microsoft is building and deploying new products such as Microsoft Hohm, a consumer-oriented energy management application build on our new Windows Azure cloud computing platform. We’re also working to enable and extend our existing products to support Smart Grid scenarios. Just yesterday we announced with a number of industry partners a comprehensive new Smart Energy Reference Architecture. And we’re focused on the standards process as well, because that’s a big part of creating the Smart Grid as an open platform on which massive innovation can occur, unleashing applications and value that we can’t foresee.

That’s why I was happy to sit in that drab conference room helping make the standards happen quickly. By working toward common goals, and overcoming the fear of disruption that usually accompanies rapid change, we will get it done. We’ll help engineer a more sustainable future. I suspect nobody in that conference room was thinking about it at the time, but the kind of hard work that was done there is exactly what we celebrate when we celebrate World Standards Day.


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