SunSpec Brings Standardized Data to New Energy Technologies

Sunspec Alliance & IEEE Standards Association

New energy technologies such as solar and wind power produce data in different ways from centralized power generation systems like coal or nuclear power. Yet because they’re distributed across a wider area, accurate data about their production and status is even more important to utilities and regulators. The SunSpec Alliance is an industry alliance working with utilities, manufacturers and government to help standardize the data from distributed energy resources. We spoke with SunSpec chairman Tom Tansy about their efforts and how IEEE Standards Association has been part of it.

Q:  The SunSpec Alliance works in the distributed energy resource space. Tell us what that is and what you do.

A:  To understand what distributed energy is, start by understanding the opposite—centralized energy, which is a coal plant or a natural gas plant or a nuclear power plant that’s connected to the transmission grid.

Distributed energy is a form of generation that’s attached directly to the distribution grid. It’s basically synonymous with solar and wind power, though there are a few other kinds.

The issue is that a modern grid can’t run without data communication. Utilities have perfect information about centralized plants, but solar is located on people’s rooftops, that kind of thing. So they don’t have a very good picture of whether they’re switched on and available to draw on, or even still out there.

About ten years ago plant builders started putting communications out there as part of their installations, on an ad hoc basis. Seven years ago, SunSpec was created to help define communication standards and information models and protocols, so these plants could communicate with the grid. Now you’re starting to get the states mandating how the data will work. California and Hawaii are the first, and literally the state public utility commissions have determined that they can’t support rollout of the smart grid without this kind of information.

Q:  Describe how SunSpec works as an organization.

A:  SunSpec is seven years old and has about 100 members and related business partners. We operate on a global basis and our standards have been adopted by regulators not only in California and Hawaii, as mentioned, but in countries like Denmark.

We work with all the major solar inverter equipment providers and collaborate with national labs all around the globe—Sandia, Argonne and others in the U.S., and with labs in Austria, Italy, Japan, Canada, Germany, and we just started working with Taiwan. We’re rolling out our technology to 26 countries involved in smart grid research.

We just recently won an award from the U.S. Department of Energy for what’s called the Orange Button initiative, to define data interchange standards to support financing and banking for distributed energy projects.

Q:  How does the financial industry connect to this?

A:  Solar projects are financed in many ways, a loan, leasing, etc., but there’s almost always some kind of long term financing. And those investors want data. They want a general description of the asset, where it is, when it went into operation, who built it. The banks want to know that it’s still producing, any fault conditions that might impact what it’s producing. If it’s in a residential location, they want a creditor score, to know that the owner still has a job.

We want to make sure that there are standard formats for that data. A standard interchange format for data will reduce the cost of financing these projects.

Q:  How has IEEE been a part of this process?

A:  IEEE has been part of several different aspects of it. Basically, we’re a developer of de facto standards—we evaluate the landscape, determine what the gaps in existing standards are, and we fill in the gaps that our members tell us about.
That means we work with groups like IEEE to improve the standards to reflect what our members are doing. We’re on the editing committee of IEEE 2030.5™, and one of our members is the chairman for IEEE 1547™.

The cadence of our work is on the order of one to two years. Our members are working on de facto standards that take, say, 9 to 12 months. The deployment phase is another year. By that time people are looking around saying, that should be a standard, and so we take that de facto standard into the IEEE standards process. As a trade alliance we can do this work for all our members at the same time.

Q:  What do you see as the benefit of allying with SunSpec for IEEE members?

A:  Well, for those looking at the California market, you’re looking at compliance with IEEE 2030.5—and SunSpec contributed the core technology for distributed energy resources to that standard. So we’re experts, and we’re looking for other likeminded people who want to deploy this technology at scale.

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