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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a statement Tuesday that effectively closed the books, at least for now, on any formal rulemaking proceedings related to adopting smart grid interoperability standards.

The commission states that the industry has not reached a consensus on a body of standards that has been in circulation for more than a year. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has led the standardization effort in concert with several industry stakeholders, both public and private.

These "five families" of standards, which were developed by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), address device and network communications for a number of utility areas, such as substation automation, control-center communications, and transmission and distribution data exchange.

But the main sticking points, according to FERC, are "concerns with cybersecurity deficiencies and potential unintended consequences from premature adoption of individual standards."

NIST kicked the smart grid standardization process into high gear in August 2009, starting with the formation of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP). NIST and the SGIP quickly developed the first version of the Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, and the larger smart grid industry reviewed that document through much of 2010. That review period resulted in the pinpointing of the five sets of standards, which were presented to FERC late last year.

FERC says the comment period it opened up following receipt of the five families of standards yielded "nearly unanimous" feedback stating that the commission should not adopt the standards right now, largely because the cybersecurity protections and protocols designed to safeguard smart grid networks are not fully developed.

With this latest decision, the commission has left the dialogue about smart grid interoperability standards somewhat in limbo. FERC offered no insight about if or when it would re-open a docket, and it specified no action plan for NIST or the electric utility industry.

"We believe that the best vehicle for developing smart grid interoperability standards is the NIST interoperability framework process, including the work of the SGIP and its committees and working groups," FERC's statement reads. "This work includes harmonization and extensions of existing smart grid interoperability standards, as well as the development of new standards."

George Arnold, NIST's national coordinator for smart grid interoperability, addressed members of the SGIP via e-mail Wednesday night, noting that "NIST supports the commission's order."

"It is consistent with NIST's public comments to the commission that it can send appropriate signals to the marketplace by recommending use of the NIST framework and that it would be impractical and unnecessary for the commission to adopt individual interoperability standards," he wrote.

But EnerNex Chairman Erich Gunther, who has been an integral part of the SGIP's work, believes "consensus" is multi-layered and requires specificity.

"Saying that 'Consensus has not been reached' alone is too vague without saying 'Consensus on what,'" he tells Renew Grid.

Gunther says many elements in the interoperability-standards debate have absolutely reached consensus, such as identifying and determining the usefulness of certain existing standards.

However, he contends, "I would argue that neither FERC nor any other entity implemented any process to seek consensus on whether FERC or any other entity should even consider adopting standards of any kind via rulemaking."

From Gunther's perspective, two key questions still need to be addressed:
  • Should FERC institute a formal rulemaking process to adopt any interoperability standard, and under what circumstances?
  • What does "adopt" mean?

"The FERC ruling that 'We find insufficient consensus to institute a rulemaking proceeding at this time to adopt the five families of standards' is not a surprise. But that conclusion was not based on an open process because that specific question has never been asked, and the meaning of 'adopt' has never been established," he comments.

"From my point of view, we are still at the starting line on determining the role of FERC in specifying how standards should be used, referenced, adopted or mandated in rulemaking."

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