Tech CEOs evangelize about need for open standards

Source: Rod Kuckro, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, June 7, 2018

SAN DIEGO — Executives from some of the nation’s leading technology companies were united yesterday in their message to electric utility chiefs about the need to collaborate on making the electric grid an interactive, digital network that can enable innovative product offerings in a secure environment.

“You don’t have the horsepower to solve that by yourselves. You’re going to have to rely on companies like ours and others out there that do a really good job worrying about this. You’ll never be able to do this on your own,” said Rodger Smith, senior vice president and general manager at computer technology developer Oracle Corp.

Smith and others were featured at the opening session of the annual meeting of the Edison Electric Institute, the investor-owned utility lobby, in San Diego (Energywire, June 4).

Of the more than 900 attendees at the annual meeting, technology developers and vendors — whom EEI President Tom Kuhn routinely refers to as “partners” with his members’ companies — make up half.

“Putting intelligent devices out at the edge of the grid opens up a whole range of possibilities for intercepting information, reacting more quickly and being able to see things at a level that’s not really possible” for utilities today, said Philip Mezey, CEO of Itron Inc., a developer of energy management technology.

But bringing more sensors and devices onto utility grids to accelerate innovation requires “building an open platform that allows all of you to adopt this technology at different rates,” he said, because the investor-owned utility industry is “pretty diverse” in terms of how far along it is toward embracing digital technologies.

“Our obligation is to try to provide you with technology infrastructure that allows for variable adoption” of a standards-based, secure and flexible system, he said.

“I don’t think that the companies up here and the utilities have all of the answers how we’re going to engage with customers most effectively and actually solve some of the optimization problems that we face out on the grid. So we have to open the system up to allow other parties to come on and develop applications,” Mezey said.

Lisa Davis, CEO of Siemens Corp., agreed with the need for standardized technology platforms, especially as they pertain to cybersecurity.

“Security is by far the biggest challenge and the most important to resolve” because Siemens’ grid management and power generation products have “more and more data capabilities,” she said.

“From a company perspective, we believe that solving the cybersecurity challenge around digitalization is a global effort. This has to be solved by industry, and it has to be solved in a collective fashion that involves companies around the world,” Davis said. To that end, she said, Siemens is “working with 16 other companies to develop what we call a ‘Charter of Trust'” that would govern standards and rules around digital platforms for the grid.

Oracle’s approach to security is rigorous, Smith said. “We spend a ton of money on our own hackers. Oracle doesn’t send out a piece of software that we haven’t tried to hack with independent hackers,” he said.

“You can’t do that as an industry,” he told the EEI executives. “Your challenge is to make sure that suppliers who supply you with software at the edge of the grid or for your business processes have the appropriate protections in place to minimize” security breaches. “To stop it completely, frankly, would be almost impossible. You try to minimize it,” Smith added.

Mezey concurred that to ensure a secure grid, utilities need to “be demanding of the people that are supplying” software and management systems by insisting on open standards.

“In the digital grid world, almost everything is bespoke and requires a large project. We have to get beyond that because in order to accelerate innovation, we need standardization,” Mezey said.

Utilities are facing an evolution they may not be prepared for, Smith said. “This industry in the future is going to be driven by the customer. It’s a virtuous circle today — it’s no longer linear generation to the customer — it is a circle because the same customer that used to be just the end taker is now going to be with [distributed energy resources] and other things someone who actually is engaged in how the edge of that grid functions. So think about that.”