Plays Well With Others: How Will Interoperability Shape the Future of Energy Distribution?


Each time I fly I gain valuable insight by observing the earth from above. In the nighttime, the landscape resembles the face of a microchip. Illuminated clusters of homes are connected by brightly pulsing roadways that make energy distribution visible. Streetlights, powerlines, and pipe ways extend in linear networks that overlap, comingle, and convey resources. From this aerial perspective it is clear just how important and interdependent those systems are.

I spent last week at DistribuTech, a distributed energy and water tradeshow in Orlando, Florida, where I learned about innovations and emerging technologies taking place within the energy industry. I connected with product manufacturers and utilities professionals and immersed myself in educational opportunities. And I was amazed by the sheer number of products on the market—both hardware and software—that specifically address the importance of the interconnectedness within our infrastructural systems.

This concept is often called the Internet of Things (IoT). I prefer the term interoperability for its precision. Interoperability is the ability of two or more components, devices, systems, or networks to exchange information seamlessly and securely. It refers to the cyber-physical interface and open network structure that allows sensors, controls, and actuators to communicate. Data collected by a sensor can be translated into if-then terms that can then determine an action.

Within an interoperable network, each component is an individual computing system but able to function together. And when working in concert, these systems can form smart grids, smart homes, intelligent transportation, and smart cities.

Not long ago, the majority of industry software and equipment was proprietary. Only within the past 20 years have companies like IBM, Sun, and Google demonstrated the compelling advantages of products and services based on open-source or non-proprietary standards. This open-source model offers a common currency. Valuable exchanges can take place with bits and bytes.

This age of integration is a dramatic shift from static, single direction processes to an orchestral collaboration of sensors, relationships, automation, adaptability, and, ultimately, optimized efficiency. It is an intellectual changing of the guard—one of data aggregation and integration.

In the context of energy distribution, the dawn of this cyber-physical connection can address challenges such as: power shortages, increasing power costs, load management, and the need for greater energy reliability. It can address security issues, carbon emission concerns, and generation capacity. Interoperability has the potential to catalyze new technologies and services, enhance grid resilience, and optimize performance of assets both at the network and component level.

At DistribuTech I noted that on the hardware side, many companies have developed components, sensors, and actuators that share data with a variety of different partner companies. Others have developed software specific to the energy distribution industry that provides operational insight and efficiency optimization through grid management systems and process automation. And some offer operational management systems with platforms that aggregate data across utilities—gas, electricity, water—and provide relevant information to the consumer, supplier, and work force.

What I find especially impressive are the architected systems and relationships that companies have developed to support the communication of things and the integration of disparate data streams. This collaborative environment is one that nurtures great innovation and productivity. It gives me great hope.

We live in an electron-thirsty global economy. In the future, it’s not hard to imagine that interoperability may help us address the world’s increasing demand for energy, as well as power quality, security, and consistency.

In what ways do you see interoperability shaping the future of energy distribution? BE_bug_web

  • Lyn Corum.

    I so like “interoperability” better than the “Internet of Things.” I was mystified when I first came across IOT. Interoperability explains it nicely.


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