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Sowing the Seeds of Grid Interoperability

“Plug-and-Play DER Challenge” Seeks Industry Solutions to Address Technology Silos

The nation’s power grid is undergoing more disruptive change than at any point since its inception more than a century ago. The proliferation of distributed energy resources (DERs) and new models of customer engagement have added significant complexity. Simultaneously, innovative companies and business models are transforming the traditional generation, transportation and consumption of electricity. From rooftop solar and energy storage to smart thermostats and electric vehicles, an energy revolution is underway.

A key challenge to realizing the benefits of this revolution is enabling these new technologies to work together, or interoperate, to optimize value. Example benefits include improving grid reliability and resiliency; shaving and shifting peak load; reducing carbon emissions; deferring expensive grid and infrastructure investments; and empowering consumers to better manage their energy consumption and costs.

For example, consider a household that has an electric vehicle and charger, rooftop solar panels, an energy storage system in the garage, a smart thermostat and an advanced meter providing communication between these devices and the utility. With these devices interoperating intelligently, solar generation is directed to EV charging and storage during times of high production and low costs. When the sun sets, stored energy is used to meet increased load, reducing stress on the grid and maintaining  comfort and convenience for the customer.

A Barrier to this Optimal Future

However, achieving these outcomes is predicated on these technologies being interoperable, providing a seamless and low-friction experience for users. The challenge is that many of these new and disruptive technologies use proprietary interfaces, and as a result, they do not yet interoperate.

“Broad interoperability of DERs and related control technologies is a key building block for building the resilient and flexible grid of the 21st century,” said Chris Irwin, Program Manager at DOE. “The Plug and Play DER Challenge is just one example of how DOE – through multiple Offices and National Laboratories – is working with industry, developing solutions to the key crosscutting challenges of grid modernization.”

Interoperability is one of those marketing words that has been overused to the point that its meaning has been greatly diluted. Fundamentally, it means things work together in expected ways. Specifically, interoperability is a characteristic of a product or system whose interfaces are completely understood, that work and share data with other products or systems. Common interoperability examples include a computer mouse that plugs in and works instantly with any computer, or a smartphone that quickly and seamlessly pairs with a car’s Bluetooth system.

A Path Forward

For the past three years, a consortium of national laboratories called the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium (GMLC), with sponsorship from the U.S. Department of Energy, has collaborated with industry stakeholders to develop a strategic vision and practical pathway for achieving broad interoperability for energy-related assets, technologies and devices.

In August 2018, the GMLC announced the “Plug & Play DER Challenge,” a call for proposed concepts to develop interoperability solutions to lower integration costs, increase system performance, and enhance capabilities.

“Interoperability is one of the heavy lifts in grid modernization and we need strong industry support and involvement to make it happen,” said Steve Widergren, electrical engineer at PNNL who has also led GMLC’s grid interoperability project. “The value of DERs increases significantly if they can be used in an intelligent and coordinated manner. The Plug and Play DER challenge has forged a partnership with industry to develop innovative approaches for the good of consumers and the power grid.”

More than 20 individuals and companies shared abstracts, which resulted in nine written concepts. Those organizations had the opportunity to present their ideas and collaborate, resulting in the formation of three teams competing in the demonstration phase of the challenge. The teams devised concepts and specifications for interfaces that support DER integration, and then developed proposals for demonstrating the integration process with hardware and software.

Teams presented initial concepts, and a GMLC panel selected three finalists. The three submissions met the challenge criteria for an interface mechanism to ease DER integration and form the basis of an Energy Services Interface (ESI) that could universally integrate different DER technologies with the electric system. The finalists include ESI submissions from Ecogy Energy, an Amzur Technologies-led team, and an EPRI-led team.

Visualization of a DER Facility Conceptual Model – An ESI is a bi-directional, [service-oriented], logical interface that supports the secure communication of information between entities inside and entities outside of a customer boundary to facilitate various energy interactions between electrical loads, storage, and generation within customer facilities and external entities. (source: GMLC, March 2018)
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is organizing and administering the Plug and Play DER Challenge for GMLC, in collaboration with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Smart Electric Power Alliance. The concepts developed are expected to influence future standards, testing, policies, and product developments.

Representatives from the three finalist teams presented their concepts at SEPA’s Grid Evolution Summit in Washington D.C. in July. The Challenge will conclude with live demonstrations of the hardware and software interfaces for integrating DERs with a utility grid at North America Smart Energy Week on Wed, Sept. 25, 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM in Salt Lake City. The presentations will take place in the Smart Energy and Microgrid Theater: Booth 5837.

“North America Smart Energy Week will provide a great backdrop to showcase these innovative interoperability concepts,” said Christine Stearn, senior manager at SEPA. “The event is the largest gathering of renewable energy and storage leaders in the U.S., all of whom are interested in extending the reach, capabilities, and value of their technologies.”

Distributed energy resources are transforming the power grid and animating the consumer energy experience. By developing innovative approaches to enable these technologies to work together at scale with the grid and other energy management technologies, we can create broadly shared economic, environmental, and quality of life improvements.

About the Authors

Christine Stearn works on strategic opportunities to enable regulatory processes, products and services that will deliver value to customers and facilitate the electric power industry’s smart transition to a clean and modern energy future.    Prior to SEPA, Christine has had a variety of work experiences ranging from startups to working at a global sustainability think tank, to building an analytic program for a $3 billion operating organization. Christine presents on energy, sustainability, technology, climate and risk topics.

Tim Wolf serves as a Senior Science and Technology Communications Professional at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington, where he focuses on the Lab’s work in grid modernization and electricity infrastructure.

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