In the 1870s, Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof created a constructed language called Esperanto. His goal was to develop a linguistic standard—a universal second language that facilitated communication among people from different countries.
Today, the interoperability of devices linked by the Internet of Things automates our buildings, streamlines our energy management, and makes our structures “smarter.” But this interconnectivity tends to halt at the grid’s edge where most companies build equipment with proprietary communication protocols. Devices that work efficiently with one system oftentimes don’t interface well (or at all) with those designed by other companies.
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Technological exclusivity makes integration complicated for solar installations, smart inverters, energy storage, microgrids, and other edge-of-network systems trying to connect with the grid.
“It’s like trying to drop a Toyota engine into a Ford; they’re not compatible,” explained Tom Fenimore, Duke Energy’s microgrid expert and emerging technology manager in a Microgrid Knowledge  article.
Engineers at Duke Energy  are currently developing a standardized operating system that allows devices to communicate and function interdependently. The Open Field Message Bus creates a common industry model for equipment vendors in which information is shared with the network in a standardized way. The design framework links the distribution grid to devices. It will allow for communication between assets and intelligent grid hardware, and will reduce integration complexity and cost.
The team is currently testing the technology in a microgrid with 110 kW of solar and 250 kW of battery storage at the Mount Holly test bed in North Carolina. They are incorporating equipment offered by 25 different companies. The disparate technologies have created an interoperability challenge—and one that the Open Field Message Bus has, thus far, successfully navigated.
Going forward, adoption of the technology is an issue that the Duke Energy team and the industry will have to address. But once in place, Fenimore explains that standardization will offer significant dividends, benefitting utilities, equipment vendors, and energy consumers. “It makes this process of communicating with all these devices a seamless effort. It makes the effort more cost-effective and easier.”
Communication networks increase in value as the number of connections increases. This is articulated in Metcalfe’s Law, coined by Ethernet co-creator Robert Metcalfe. While two users on a network can only make one connection, five can make 10 different connections, and 12 can make 66, creating a more interconnected, useful—and thus valuable—web of communication. This axiom seems to apply to the grid as well in that the more devices it connects with, the more it will be perceived as a valuable resource.
What are your thoughts about standardizing communication systems among devices at the grid edge?