Interoperability in the Energy Sector

Published: 10 September 2019

Introduction

Interoperability is something of a buzzword in the energy sector – and is widely viewed as being essential to creating more flexible transmission, distribution and consumer services.

Energy Systems Catapult conducted research to understand and define the concept, how it’s used in the market and how the sector can use it to effect change. We then delivered a ‘discussion paper’ that explores 19 different types of interoperability within the energy sector

The Challenge and Opportunity

The term “interoperability” is often used narrowly to describe compatibility between interfacing pieces of technology. For example, when asking: “Is my smart device compatible with my smart home controller?” we think about whether the device and controller are interoperable.

However, there are wider considerations when it comes to the transforming the energy system into one that’s interoperable and flexible – so it takes full advantage of the digital revolution. And there was no effective framework for systematically analysing these complex considerations.

As an independent organisation taking a whole systems approach to energy, the Catapult was well placed to review how stakeholders approach interoperability – and to provide guidance for policymakers and innovators.

Our Approach

Energy Systems Catapult surveyed stakeholders from across the sector to discover how they used the term “interoperability”. Based on this and a review of existing literature, we identified 19 of the most common definitions. We then grouped them into six categories, creating a framework for understanding the full implications of interoperability. The six categories and their definitions are:

  1. Consumer interoperability– provisions exist for consumers to switch between different commercial offers and technology choices.
  2. Commercial interoperability– incentives are aligned across the energy system so that value can flow where it needs to, driven by market forces.
  3. Data interoperability– easing the sharing and portability of data between different systems.
  4. Device interoperability– devices are swappable, replaceable and exchangeable as needs change and technologies develop, so consumers can make informed choices between open and closed ecosystems.
  5. Physical interoperability– end-to-end systems function as changes happen to parts of the system.
  6. Vector interoperability– energy provision across gas, electricity, heat and transport fuels are compatible with one another, and coordination occurs in a timely fashion.

The resulting discussion paper An introduction to interoperability in the energy sector defined each category and provided case studies. It highlighted the need to consider multiple forms of interoperability simultaneously to achieve the flexibility required to adapt to consumer, technology and systemic changes.

Ideally we should aims to move towards an industry-standard definition.

The Impact

Energy Systems Catapult’s discussion paper has provided clarity around interoperability and showcased how the concept can be used. It was intended to start discussion within the sector on this key topic, and market feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

The research has therefore opened up crucial conversations and encouraged the sector to think in a more standardised way about this essential element of system-wide change, including:

  • The Systems Integration team has been invited to present our findings to organisations such as Ofgem, Citizens Advice and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Our framework has been cited in papers, used in bids and pushed out to stakeholders through trade associations.
  • An industry roundtable hosted by the Catapult included in-depth discussion on interoperability among senior figures from National Grid, Good Energy, UKERC, Verv, PassivSystems, Geo, The Faraday Grid and DeltaEE. The main debate surrounded finding the right balance between “over-defining” or “over-engineering” interoperability too soon and inhibiting innovation; or “leaving the market to its own devices, which could cause issues later down the line” – risking the emergence of new digital siloes.
  • A position on the British Standards Institute steering group developing two new Publicly Accessible Specifications, one is for Demand Side Flexibility and the other is for Energy Smart Appliances, which both of those seek to develop interoperable standards.

The Catapult’s five-year plan focuses on interoperability and digitalisation as key themes, and we’re always looking to partner with companies and organisations interested in tackling this important challenge.