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OpenFMB charts new paths for grid-edge interoperability and communication

In February 2016, more than 1,000 people at the annual DistribuTECH conference watched a team representing 25 utilities, technology vendors, research labs and government agencies demonstrate a new framework that allows distributed technologies at the grid edge to communicate in close to real time.

The OpenFMB demonstration at DistribuTECH 2016 (Source: OpenFMB Technical Working Group).

Called the Open Field Message Bus, or OpenFMB™, the new framework makes this critical level of grid-edge communication possible by translating between the communications protocols of different devices and sharing information. At the demonstration, which was sponsored by Duke Energy, the partners deployed a microgrid application scattered across 12 booths in the conference exhibition hall. Even though the booths were connected via different telecomm technologies — 4GLTE, 900mHz, wired Ethernet, wireless Ethernet, and fiber – each one was able to run a part of the overall microgrid, all based on OpenFMB, using extremely flexible  Internet of Things (IoT) protocols.

The demo partners also successfully ran through a series of near-real-time microgrid functions, including grid optimization, islanding and resynchronization. The impact was almost immediate, with some utilities soon after incorporating OpenFMB compatibility as a requirement in their requests for proposals for upcoming grid-edge projects.

OpenFMB  was developed in response to the proliferation of distributed energy resources (DERs) and other smart technologies on the grid, and the resulting, increasingly critical need for greater interoperability and information sharing among these systems. Work on the communications framework was started in 2014 by the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) and Duke Energy, but is now part of the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) following the merger of SEPA and SGIP earlier this year.

Simply put, the grid’s legacy communication systems are based on a centralized model and architecture. Information from distributed devices, in many cases, still has to be routed through centralized, back-end energy management systems.

Traditional centralized utility communications (left) vs. OpenFMB grid-edge communications (Source: OpenFMB Technical Working Group).

By removing the need for communications to route through a centralized back-end system, the utility’s ability to manage the distribution system is improved.  For example, OpenFMB could help a utility effectively manage circuits with high penetration of DERs – such as inverters communicating with both energy storage and a microgrid to maintain frequency and voltage.

 

New flexibility for grid modernization

A utility that wants to establish interoperability between devices that use different communication protocols would normally have to dump those devices and buy new ones, all using the same protocol, from a single vendor. The required investment of time, money and human resources would be substantial. But with OpenFMB, that utility can instead update its grid hardware, and expand operations down the road without system overhauls.

How does it work? In simplest terms, OpenFMB contains a “common semantic model” – the computer code that provides the platform or vehicle for the different devices to communicate.

The result is that utilities can make some investment decisions faster and more efficiently, and have more options to deploy different types of technology for different needs. This flexibility is especially important for cybersecurity and system resiliency.

For example, SEPA’s OpenFMB TM Technical Working Group has developed a use case – that is, a potential functionality — for microgrids to island themselves in response to potentially disruptive operational conditions. The payoff for utilities is more flexible integration of renewables and storage, as well as local stability.

The goal for OpenFMB is that inverters, batteries, microgrids and other DERs will have a communications protocol similar to the IoT, whlch in turn will help build a smarter grid. In March 2016, the North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) approved OpenFMB as a standard — an important milestone for industry-wide acceptance.

 

Open source and next steps

In November 2016, the SEPA’s OpenFMB Technical Working Group launched an OpenFMB  community website, www.openfmb.io, making OpenFMB code open source for the first time.

While OpenFMB is still in development, anyone can download the code and work with OpenFMB  in their labs to see how it operates and if it fits their needs. Additionally, the site provides  an overview of the OpenFMB framework, links to the NAESB standard, and a community page with information on how to get involved in the working group.

Current working group members range from utilities and technology vendors to research labs and government agencies. Current projects include expanding use cases and adding more open source code to the community website. Upcoming efforts will focus on developing an OpenFMB testing and certification program – to ensure any use is in compliance with the NAESB standard.

The grid of the future will require treating data differently; leveraging big data and performing analyses locally to process the mountain of new information produced by new, distributed technologies. OpenFMB will provide the ability to leverage both new and existing grid assets to ensure that the future power system is cleaner, as well as more reliable, secure, cost effective and resilient.

The OpenFMB Technical Working Group will meet 4-6 p.m. July 27, as part of SEPA’s Grid Evolution Summit: A National Town Meeting in Washington, D.C. For more information, contact asmallwood@sepapower.org.

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