Solving the Challenges of Integrating DERs into Grid Operations: An Interview with James Mater of QualityLogic

Author: James Mater
Date: 3/31/2021

On March 31st, James Mater – the co-founder of QualityLogic and founder of GridEdge Intelligence – sat down with Dan Coran, the editor of Smart Grid Observer to talk about the challenges of integrating DERs into grid operations. The following is from that interview, which you can also hear on SGO's energy insight podcast series.

SGO: First of all, tell me something about your involvement in the DER integration business.

  • A: We started working with DER protocols in 2010 when I had the opportunity to work with the founders of the OpenADR Alliance.  From there we got involved with IEEE 2030.5 but it was called Smart Energy Protocol 2 (SEP2) at the time and was owned by the Zigbee Alliance.  As a charter member of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) I was able to work on the testing and certification side of the smart grid protocols.   This gave us a really good way to understand the different standards being used and developed for DER communications as well as the state of testing and certification.  The ARRA PNWSGDP project, a $180 million 5-year project managed by PNNL, gave us an unparalleled understanding of the Smart Grid and how we could contribute.  I was privileged to be asked to join the GridWise Architecture Council and worked on the Smart Grid Interoperability maturity Model and the Decision-Maker’s Interoperability Checklist among other contributions.  Since our early involvement with OpenADR, we’ve been developing test tools and training engineers and developers in the protocols we work with.  

SGO: Can you tell me about GridEdge Intelligence? 

  • A: A lot of our interactions with our customers and the industry involve education about specific protocols and interoperability.   We are regularly asked which protocol will dominate a particular application or who is adopting a specific protocol.  We did a survey of our customers and found a very strong interest in some form of a newsletter or web site devoted just to the key DER protocols.  So we built GridEdge Intelligence and are charging a small subscription fee to underwrite the costs of continuing to improve and maintain it.   Much more information and a subscription link are at www.gridedgeintelligence.com.  

SGO: What do you mean by DERs and how can they contribute to Grid operations?  

  • A: Distributed resources include solar, battery storage, EVs and demand response.   In reality, the DER world and the load management world are very different cultures, organizations and business models.  But from a technical perspective it makes a great deal of sense to incorporate both worlds in optimizing grid management strategies.

SGO: What are the key challenges you see in integrating DERs into grid operations?

  • A: Most of the focus is on the technical and business issues of how to best optimize available DERs to address both grid requirements and owner requirements and how to create the economic and regulatory models that fairly treats all participants.   Our focus is on the nitty-gritty of the actual interactions between the grid operators and the DERs – when to do what and for how long – reduce load, increase voltage support, increase energy inputs to the grid, etc.   So from our perspective, the biggest challenges are 1) gaining agreement on the most common behaviors (use cases) required and how to communicate about them between systems using functional and communications standards; 2) adopting a set of capable standards and incentivizing (or mandating) that vendors comply with them; 3) reducing or eliminating proprietary and custom integration solutions in the “last hop” so as to enable scaling and reduce vendor lock-in; and 4) optimizing utility and regulatory culture and standardization processes – everything from the rate cases to the commissioning processes – to understand and take advantage of standardization for interoperability.

SGO: These seem like insurmountable challenges, given the inertia ingrained in the utility model and cultures.   How can they be overcome?

  • A: We see a lot of effort being done globally by utilities to agree on common use cases and associated DER messaging requirements.   This is the starting point and generally manifests itself in standards and certification efforts.  For instance, UL, SunSpec, the Society of Automotive Engineers, the major utilities and their representatives like EPRI, the CPUC, and the vendor community are all working on standardizing the functions and communications for managing different EV-Grid scenarios.
  • A: By adopting standards, the number of communications and functional options are reduced without reducing flexibility and innovation potential.   And we are starting to see competition between the standards communities which is a good thing.  Do you use IEEE 2030.5 or DNP3 or IEC 61850 for inverter based DER control?  Should you use OpenADR or IEEE 2030.5 for DR applications?   ISO 15118 or IEEE 2030.5 for EVSE-EV communications?   At least the competition is between open standards-based solutions.   As momentum for a particular standard for a specific application gains speed and more vendors support it, we see the market segmenting but not eliminating multiple standards.
  • A: The focus on standards is the most important mechanism for addressing proprietary and custom engineered solutions.   And it’s not just standards development but the application of those standards to the specific scenarios that are being researched and deployed.   For instance, the SunSpec Alliance is working with its members and industry to define what we call “profiles” of IEEE 2030.5 for Metering and EVs.   We’ll then take those profiles and create a test and certification program that utilities can specify as a means to deploy standards-based solutions instead of proprietary ones.   There are certainly issues and a long way to go before we start seeing the indisputable benefits of this approach but tremendous progress is being made and supported by the utilities and regulators in the US and beyond.  
  • A: One of the major issues is the “last hop” blindness that utilities seem to have when it comes to mandating a particular protocol at the local interface to a DER or DR resource.  It is easy for utilities and regulators to require a standard from the utility DERMS to the first system in the communications pathway.  But the vendor community continues to push the scenario that this is enough standardization and that utilities shouldn’t care or mandate how their systems actually communicate with that “first hop” – i.e., the “last hop”.  This just perpetuates proprietary systems and vendor lock-in based on the communications interface.  IEEE 1547 is actually the first industry standard we have seen that mandates a combination of both functional and communications standardization at the local DER.  And we think it promises to be a model for standardizing other cyber-physical system behaviors and control.
  • A: Adoption and strict conformance to a standard is driven by the legislative and regulatory mandates such as the Federal requirement in the US for IEEE 1547 conformance and the CA Rule 21 requirement for CSIP.   Although we think it would be better if industry drive standards adoption – e.g., wifi or Bluetooth – the reality is that for grid-oriented applications, it usually takes some sort of mandate and enforcement to cause vendor adoption.
  • A: The Utility and regulatory culture and processes are designed to deploy standard hardware but not standard application communications, even at the substation level.  In other words, this is an industry that does relatively few things at scale and those that are done at scale are electrical hardware such as poles and wires and transformers.   Substations are not that many and each tends to be a custom design and integration.   But when scaling to incorporate tens of thousands or millions of grid edge devices, utilities do not have the culture, technical expertise or processes necessary.   This is a critical learning process and absolutely required for success.   In our view this is probably the most challenging problem to solve: it will take the most time and money.   Not sure I have a good solution on this issue.

SGO: You mentioned different EV-Grid scenarios, what are they?

  • A: The primary deployment models we see are:
  • Managed charging that only focuses on the rate and time of charging PEVs as a way to augment demand response programs.  This is relatively simple and has been demonstrated numerous times.  It doesn’t matter where the inverter itself is as long as the overall control of the charging session can be modified based on utility and owner requirements.
  • DC Vehicle-2-Grid applications where a bi-directional inverter is in the EVSE and the EVSE manages the actual charging session.   The vehicle can act as a grid support battery while connected to the EVSE and provide energy and power management through the EVSE inverter.
  • There is an argument that the auto makers can scale production and lower costs of the inverter technology much more efficiently than the standalone EVSE vendors.  Their materials, engineering and production capabilities dwarf just about everyone else.  So a deployment model with the inverters onboard the PEVs is being actively developed by the auto industry.
  • There are other deployment nuances that involve aggregators, charge network operators, microgrids and facility energy management systems that are emerging.   Interoperability in this domain is becoming one of the major challenges in transforming both the Grid and transportation systems.  

SGO: Can you give examples of addressing interoperability successfully and not so successfully?

  • A: I’ve been part of and observed several different standards eco-systems.   The keys to successfully interoperability are 1) very tight conformance requirements and 2) lots of industry experience getting systems to interoperate.   The second is accelerated by formal industry interop events or the addition of interoperability testing to standard conformance testing programs.   A good example of what we think will be successful use of standards is the work that SunSpec is doing with IEEE 2030.5.  It starts by developing very specific application conformance profiles with little optionality allowed.  These become the basis for rigorous 3rd party certification test programs.   And SunSpec is developing an online process they call “continuous interops” which can address the interoperability issue.  It’s still in its infancy but the processes being put in place look very positive.   On the other hand, the IEC 61850 certification program includes very minimal conformance testing and vendors have a great deal of latitude to implement the aspects of IEC 61850 that match their applications and product functionality.   Needless to say, interoperability “out-of-the-box” is almost non-existent in the 61850 domains.

SGO: What is your recommendation to utilities that are actively developing and scaling a DER management infrastructure?

  • A: First, adopt a top-down commitment to using industry standards for communications and functionality whenever possible.  Second, commit to participating and contributing to the development and maturation of the standards that they will need.  And Third, invest in training and a test lab to educate your workforce on the nuances of implementing standards-based systems and to validate your implementation designs and processes prior to field deployment.