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EnergyIoT Article 7 – The Road Forward

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EnergyIoT Article 7 – The Road Forward

By Stuart McCafferty, Eamonn McCormick, David Forfia

Disclaimer:  The viewpoints in this article and others in the series are the personal views of the authors and in no way are meant to imply or represent those of the companies they work for.

It has been quite a while since we published the first 6 articles in this series and a lot has happened in that time. 

The historic opportunity and necessity to transform the energy industry remains.  Additionally, there is an unprecedented expansion of the internet of things as we all adapt to a future that will include more distributed intelligence and autonomy.  Linking the changes in the energy domain with the millions of new devices now connecting will unleash a new wave of positive changes and innovation. But there will be some pain as we move in that direction.

In this series of articles, we began by describing the business drivers impacting a centralized energy industry model that cannot meet the scale and magnitude of a rapidly growing distributed infrastructure – and why the electric power industry is ripe for disruption. Next, we provided some perspectives on why the existing 100+ year old model simply no longer meets our needs and why we need to think differently.  The next 4 articles introduced an EnergyIoT alternative approach that scales, is event-driven, and takes advantage of modern cloud technologies such as virtualization, microservices, containers, orchestration, security, digital twins, data management, existing energy and IoT standards, and new service delivery models that simplify the way that grid assets are integrated and managed.

Change is coming.  A global transformation is happening. For example, since writing our first article the European Union penned the European Green Deal and has proposed a law to ensure a climate neutral EU by 2050.  The EU has already committed to 50% carbon reduction by 2030.  It’s rather remarkable that the US still has not created sustainability policies, but this could change very rapidly as more states adopt more aggressive policies and US lawmakers look to stimulate a reeling economy recovering from a coronavirus shutdown.  Whether driven by policy to decarbonize, the ever-declining price of renewables, the pace of technological change or other “grid forces” you’ve read about, they all lead to the same conclusion.  Change is coming.

In addition, if we can gain any valuable insight from the Covid 19 pandemic is that we are far more vulnerable to sudden systemic disruption than we had imagined. More than ever we need to invest in more local resiliency so we can survive potential shocks without catastrophic damage. It is impossible to be sure what a systemic crisis could look like, perhaps a cyber attack, successive hurricanes or rampant wildfires that could similarly disrupt bulk electric power. Whatever the cause we need to invest in a more distributed and resilient energy infrastructure to protect us all from the unforeseen “black swans” whether financial, terror, war, climate, pandemic, or something unforeseen.

A transformation is happening.

A Call to Action

Throughout these articles, we have outlined a workable architecture that can enable a very rapid transition to a distributed, robust, reliable and lower cost “two way” grid.  The missing ingredient is aligning utilities, cloud providers, and vendors to do it.

Nothing in these series of articles is science fiction. All components shown in the Conceptual Model currently exist or can be added quickly. What we need is to simply build a coalition of the willing to move this future vision of the industry forward.

We must leverage the cloud and the techniques used to enable the cloud to achieve this historic transition in record time, cost effectively and safely. These technologies and methods are now globally available and can provide the key “digital services” needed to unlock this puzzle. These approaches produce a secure, compliant and simple-to-use “Green Cloud” energy services layer where all core services can be accessed simply, securely, reliably from anywhere, via a cloud or local service provider.

We need to create a new type of service provider and DevOps environment for our industry that allows us to simplify and accelerate how technologies connect and transact with energy grids globally. This new type of service provider will provide the connective tissue that will integrate with existing energy assets and companies to enable new opportunities for them. These services will be adaptable, low cost, secure and reliable and tailored to the unique needs of the electric power industry. Most importantly the services provided will also allow new innovations from new providers, while at the same time preserving security, reliability and lowering cost. This frankly is the only way we will be able to introduce the vital innovations we need “at scale” rapidly enough to meet our shared aggressive global energy transformation goals.

We envision it being as easy to connect solar, battery and other Distributed Energy Resources (DER) as "plugging in” any internet connected electronic device such as an Alexa. The home energy management service will allow you to connect to an energy service provider “near you” as easily as we connect to Amazon Video or Netflix in our homes today. This will be accomplished through simple-to-use home and business energy management systems that can discover newly added or removed assets and seamlessly connect them to the grid based on the user’s policy settings (e.g. grid services, local market participation).

We must adapt to regulatory, utility, creative, financial and societal drivers by creating a new type of energy cloud service provider that puts us on a path to success and creates an event-driven, distributed, transparent ecosystem.  Such an ecosystem, if done right, can enrich the business models of existing utilities and allow them to create new services for themselves and their customers.  The same ecosystem also provides new opportunities for innovators, businesses, and homeowners.  We can open a door to the types of new innovations we so desperately need to build a sustainable future and heal some of the damage done inadvertently by our old model.  Equally as important, this transformation will provide new well-paying job opportunities for our economy, providing new prospects for educators, blue and white collar workers that will grow and sustain the very foundation of our society, which of course is the worker.

So how do we make all of this happen?

The Big Picture Has to Work Together

Figure 1- The EnergyIoT Conceptual Model

The foundational conceptual drawing in Figure 1 is a simple representation of some very complex system of system relationships that were detailed in the first six articles.  The conceptual model is abstract enough to easily represent the big picture, but also be able to consider each of the components individually and have a good understanding of what role they perform, the data they generate, and how each element interacts with other ecosystem components.  The architecture is event-driven and data-centric and loosely coupled.  It includes state-of-the-art security and access control techniques that minimize the probability of cascading events due to natural disruptions or a physical or cyber-attack.

The three domains (Systems, Services, and OT) of this conceptual model already exist.  They each already operate very well independently.  They all need to change fundamentally their philosophy to support the future.  We need an ecosystem that is data-centric, event-driven, secure, loosely-coupled, service-oriented, enables distributed hierarchical command and control, and is transparent and fair.  Most importantly, they all need to work together.

With its founding in 2004, the Gridwise Architecture Council - a team of industry leaders who are shaping the guiding principles, or architecture, of a highly intelligent and interactive electric system – began working on the issue of interoperability.  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) established the Smart Grid Interoperability Committee (SGIP) in 2009 with the same goal in mind – the SGIP was merged into the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA).  The Department of Energy (DOE) has focused on interoperability in our National Labs and by supporting Standards Development Organizations.  The end game for interoperability becomes that of “plug-n-play”.

The fundamental drivers for interoperability are simple:

  • Without common agreement through the use of standards, connecting devices and systems together is costly, time-consuming, and burdensome to maintain. 
  • With a common set of rules to connect devices and systems together, the time and cost for achieving that connectivity declines. 

The relationship between interoperability, cost, and functionality are shown graphically in Figure 2.

Figure 2- Interoperability Relationship to Cost and Functionality

Today we have processes and the preconditions in place to get to a “plug-and-play state”.  People and their technologies progress through stages of reaching consensus before you reach that end state.  Interoperability starts small with groups of likeminded people coming together to share their approaches.  And over time - and with a lot of work - a common agreement scales to an industry.  This approach has served us well and there are numerous standards available that are on this trajectory.  This approach takes time, but when done correctly, the standard can be extended and refined, gradually and methodically adding built-in functionality and lower costs.  A great example of this is the Universal Serial Bus (USB) standard that is now in its third generation, providing dramatically faster charge speeds as customers demanded improvements and vendors agreed on extended specifications and greater functionality.

The Way Forward

Making a change of this magnitude is hard to get your head around.  This is NOT the way we have done things for the past 100+ years.  We need a pragmatic way that takes this very big idea and breaks it down to manageable tasks and milestones that can be acted on quickly and measured periodically.

Figure 3- Implementing the EnergyIoT Conceptual Architecture through Utility, Technology, Vendor, and Industry Partnerships

We propose a four-step approach that engages with progressive utility, technology, and vendor partners depicted in 3:

  1. Align the Partners
  2. Build the Critical Services
  3. Pilot the Approach
  4. Implement at Scale

Align the Partners

We call for a select group of technology-savvy executive sponsors spanning utilities, cloud providers, industry vendors, government agencies and regulators to support a set of innovation workshops that complete in less than a calendar quarter that apply the concepts of the conceptual model to existing use cases and answer:

  • What existing use cases are most implementable and create the most benefit for the energy industry?

  • Where are the best opportunities within the energy industry for their implementation?

  • What are our current execution capabilities, gaps, dependencies, and blind spots?

  • Where can the industry test these pilots safely?

  • What is the execution roadmap and investment priorities?

This group of companies and individuals will finance and work together to drive towards a common destination of an EnergyIoT ecosystem.  We will look for additional funding through grants, sponsorships, and partners.  This team will act as a “steering committee” to align stakeholder priorities, identify issues and challenges, review progress and milestones, make connections with appropriate experts and influencers, and be the executive “technical champions” for the R&D effort.

Build the Services

As we’ve said before, none of this is science fiction and most, if not all, of the technology already exists. We need them to be “packaged” in an industry-specific cloud environment to provide the standards-based toolsets, development capabilities, data storage and management, common adapters and digital twin agents,  microservices, and analytics specifically designed for the electric power industry.  The existing generic solutions cannot gain large-scale industry acceptance or scale as quickly as needed to meet the expected large number of distributed assets, new markets, and opportunities for a clean energy paradigm.

Some baseline assumptions and expectations for executing our proposed roadmap and “packaging” this energy-specific cloud-based ecosystem include:

  1. We will need the best and brightest in the energy industry.  There is a lot of technology involved.  To be successful, the industry will need its thought leaders, architects, technology professionals, and electric power operations and market experts.  We will also need patience and the willingness to fail fast and learn from our mistakes.  This is truly R&D, but the potential benefits of this type of collaboration will yield paybacks for the rest of our lives and then some.

  2. We will leverage cloud technologies. The reality is that a technological revolution has occurred over the last twenty years. That revolution is the wide spread adoption of a fairly standardized set of Internet technologies that enable cloud computing at scale. A vast set of technologies and a huge workforce now exists that is familiar with these technologies and techniques. The challenge is that to date these technologies have been focused on commerce and entertainment and less on industrial scale processes. This is now changing as we see the rapid transformation of the transportation sector from an ownership paradigm to a solution paradigm best exemplified by Uber and Tesla. However, such a shift has not yet occurred in the electric power industry. Now is the time to apply the elastic, flexible, secure, distributed, compute-intensive capabilities of the cloud in the service of the global energy transformation.

  3. We will need to develop a data architecture.  This is perhaps the biggest challenge.  There will be many forms of structured and unstructured data.  Some is relational.  Some data sets could be VERY large.  Some data will need to be accessed by numerous services and systems.  Some data will have privacy issues.  Most, if not all, data will need to be secure.  Assets will need unique identifiers and will need to be “registered” within the ecosystem.  There will be many associations between assets, people, companies, systems, etc.  Data will require a common naming scheme, perhaps based on IEC’s CIM and 61850, to avoid confusion and to take advantage of existing information models, profiles, and protocols.

  4. We will use what is already there.  There are many legacy applications that provide the electric power industry with complex and expensive integration solutions that are brittle and hard to maintain.  But somehow they work.  Unfortunately, they were built from a system-centric perspective rather than an event-driven perspective.  They are siloed – in some cases, by design – and built with centralized, top-down architectures.  These applications will require major rework to align with our conceptual architecture.  But we can harvest the logic and develop services-based solutions to maximize code re-use and apply best practices for cloud development.  We will use existing standards – information models, profiles, and protocols – where it makes sense.  Some new definitions or extensions will be needed, but wherever possible, we will use what we can to help support backwards-compatibility with legacy systems.

  5. We will select fairly simple, but measurable use cases in the beginning.  This is already complicated enough.  We will select use cases that are likely to be successful but will also require the development of services and capabilities that will also support more and more complex use cases.  Enough said.

  6. We will need a laboratory to test our solutions.  We truly require a small scale and full-scale testing capability.  DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is probably the best-suited at this time, but we will require multiple locations to test our hypotheses and use cases with real equipment and scale.  Whether that will be provided by government or private industries will need to be explored.

Developing the “Green Cloud” Services Domain will require new microservices, a data architecture, and digital twins and adapters to support simulation and abstract communications with OT assets.  Some obvious microservices include machine learning analytics to perform better forecasting or services that manage access to data, assets, and systems.

Pilot the Approach

Once a suitable laboratory capability and location has been identified and a team of ambitious stakeholders has been assembled, the team will design a pilot to test the use cases.  We encourage the use of UML modeling to document and ensure the pilot tests are unambiguous to all the involved stakeholders.  Several different scenarios, standards, and communication methodologies should be tested to provide vendors with choices in how their products interoperate with a fully distributed, event-driven architecture.  The primary goal of the pilot will be to show true interoperability between systems, microservices, and Operational Technology (OT) assets using a variety of communication mechanisms and interoperability standards.

One pilot idea that the authors have been discussing is the abstraction and integration of home and small business DER.  This will require a simple home energy management system (EMS) that discovers newly installed or removed DER and manages the DER assets based on control or market signals.  One company that currently has some of this capability is SwitchDin.  Their residential Droplet controller product is a small hardware device that acts as a home EMS, connecting directly with the devices they manage, supporting several different protocols (including IEEE 2030.5), and abstracting/aggregating the devices for integration with other grid assets, the utility, and/or markets.  It is entirely possible that companies like Amazon and Google will recognize the business opportunity with their Alexa and Home Hub, respectively, and enable this capability as well.  Such a pilot would allow for a wide variety of scenarios including direct control (distributed generation, storage, and demand response) from the utility, coordination with grid intelligent electronic devices (IED) for localized grid services, and distribution market participation.

Once the pilots have been completed, it is critical that metrics are fully captured, lessons learned, critical issues experienced, and formulas for success in implementing similar or new capabilities are published.  All discoveries, methodologies, and publications should be “public domain”.  There might even be a need to provide a series of educational workshops for utilities, vendors, regulators, and other stakeholders.

Implement at Scale

The example pilot or really any pilot that leverages modern cloud technologies and can demonstrate the power of an ecosystem that can scale, support a highly distributed set of assets, and operate in an efficient, elegant, and event-driven way, will pave the way for adoption with new opportunities for true innovation, greater resilience, and a clean energy future.

The utility partners participating in the EnergyIoT roadmap and pilot will have the first opportunity to begin implementing at scale.  Members of the team will work directly with the partner utilities’ staff and consultants to carefully identify affected processes and systems before implementing the pilot solution into their organization.  This will get easier over time as other systems and services migrate to an EnergyIoT architectural approach.  However, even in the early days of integrating new EnergyIoT solutions, the amount of effort will be the less than integrating two disparate systems in today’s top-down, centralized, siloed architecture.

Will you Join us?

So, who will join us and step forward?  Below are some of the most progressive, smartest, innovative, bravest people and innovative companies in the world.   We are challenging leaders from the following organizations to act with us:

  1. Utilities spanning the investor owned, public power and coop sectors willing to solve their most difficult operational problems with the solutions envisioned in these articles.

  2. Tech companies like Google, Microsoft, or Amazon to work with industry to develop the Green Cloud abstraction layer.  Only the companies with the smartest people, the best technology, and desire to take on risk and address big societal issues will be successful.

  3. Government agencies like DOE, NIST, NASA, or IPCC to fully fund a panel of 15-20 hand-picked architects, data modelers, and semantic language experts (IEC CIM and 61850) for a period of time to develop a reference architecture and data models to enable this transition.

  4. Standard Development Organization like IEC, IIC, or IEEE to create a Digital Twin Agent standard in 12 months for electric power industry.

  5. Public Utility Commissions to design policy and begin pilots to democratize distribution markets that drive innovation, adoption of renewables and energy storage, and create new opportunities for energy consumers and producers.

  6. And politicians to have the political will to address the societal drivers for this change creating practical policy that incentivizes transportation electrification, energy storage adoption, provides grant money for ARPA and DOE to distribute to both established and fledgling companies with innovative solutions that directly align with the Energy IoT ecosystem, and make this transition the same national imperative the space race was in the 1960’s.

There is no doubt many others that we have missed.   But you know who you are.  

Here are a few questions to consider as we close out this series:

  1. Would an industry consortium accelerate this idea and plan?  If so, which one?
  2. What insights can you bring to this discussion that will help us drive this forward?
  3. Are there challenges or other blind spots we missed?
  4. Are we too early?  If so, when will the industry be ready?
  5. Who will lead?

We need those who are willing in our generation to take on “one of the great adventures for all time” - this “moonshot” moment to combat climate change, simplify and reduce the amount of time to add DERs and other assets, and to advance our grid to become more resilient, sustainable, and reliable.  Who will step up?  

The rest of the article series can be found here: 

Call to Action Series | Energy Central


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 17, 2020

Thrilled to see this latest installment of a standout article series-- thanks a ton, Stu!

Utilities spanning the investor owned, public power and coop sectors willing to solve their most difficult operational problems with the solutions envisioned in these articles.

Solutions definitely require all different sorts of utility entities to join in, but do you see any as being more challenging to bring aboard for any institutional reason? Or should they all be jumping in with both feet equally?

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Apr 20, 2020

Hi Matt, thanks for the kind words.  I think, just like everything else, there are innovators, early adopters, and majority adopters, and laggards.  We are still in the innovator stage, so it takes a special kind of innovative utility to dive in.  But, the reality is that all of us recognize that our current centralized, system-centric, siloed architecture simply will not work as more and more DER enters our electricity networks.  Some utilities will experience this before others, and that is how we envision this playing out.  It will probably happen first on the coasts, simply out of need.  But, there are also some innovative energy companies sprinkled throughout the country, and they should at the very least be paying attention - they will be the early adopters if they are not actually part of the innovation wave.  I think we are getting close, Matt.  The architecture of today's ecosystem is quickly becoming inadequate and the passion of the majority of Americans that want sustainability and clean energy simply cannot be ignored.  DER penetration will continue to grow exponentially, and hosting capacity issues and the speed at which they can be interconnected is will not be acceptable for customers, third parties, and policy makers. 

Levent Sahiner's picture
Levent Sahiner on Apr 29, 2020

Stuart thanks you so much for the enlightening Post Series!

I am writing you from Istanbul, Turkey and we are in to emerging country may as you know. Your series give great sight for transition to digitalisation, but i think one of the most important part, finance is missing. 

If you add finance part to your series, it would be more realizable as an effective investment for goverments and private, energy companies. 

In Turkey, Goverment supports to sector's players non/easy pay back credits and some of policies to make investments feasible for the stakeholder's.

And some of companies use International Funds like The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development credits.

Despite all these encouragements, i think it is not enough to make transition to the digitilisation in a short time periods. The goverments and funds should give more support to occur the transition digitilisation for the energy sectors all over the world.

Covid-19 may cause the acceleration for these supports and investments. 

Thanks you and energycentral!

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Apr 20, 2020

Hi Levent, Great to hear from you in Turkey!  Very cool!

I think you are right.  We should spend some time trying to put some numbers around this.  That makes a lot of sense.  We had planned on being done with this series, but I think that is a truly legitimate request that is worth a little time noodling.

Thanks for the idea.  I will talk to Eamonn and David about this idea when I speak with them next.


Mark Cowan's picture
Mark Cowan on May 13, 2020

Stuart, Its an interesting article. It shows how far behind the curve the Utilities industry has fallen. I have watched the failure to adpot common standards caused by lack of investment over many years. Use of open source software solutions widly used in IoT / banking / social media could revolutionise the industry. Its time for utilities to join the 21st Century. 

Michael Bourton's picture
Michael Bourton on Jun 3, 2020

I like what I see and would really like to participate in some way.

I feel like I have been part of this journey for last 10 years. I just hope we can see realization before we all retire!

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Stuart McCafferty on Jun 4, 2020

Hi Mike,

Yes you have!  It's great to hear from you again.  Yeah, we are working this and would love to catch up and tell you where we are focused right now.


Stuart McCafferty's picture

Thank Stuart for the Post!

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