It can be done.

That's the word from John McDonald, the general manager of the transmission and distribution business at General Electric and the newly appointed chair of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel Governing Board at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Last September, NIST announced plans to establish 77 smart grid standards over the next few years and finalize 14 priority standards in 2010 alone.

That's a relatively fast pace of establishing standards, as it takes on average around four to five years to get a standard through the process, McDonald stated. And NIST's list keeps growing. The number of priority standards has now risen to 16, he noted. Appliance makers have voiced concerns about the costs and customer confusion they might face, and some have complained that NIST could slow, rather than accelerate, the process.

But McDonald, who has over two decades of experience working on standards bodies, is very confident that the 16 priority standards will get voted on and implemented this year. Why? Despite sometimes complaining about the standards process, manufacturers will remain on the sidelines until basic performance and functionality standards get established, so it's in their interests ultimately to agree.

"Being standards-based accelerates the technology," he said.

Second, many aspects of the 16 standards overlap. To reduce duplication of efforts, NIST will establish committees to hammer out sub-standards that will be integrated in various final specifications. Third, much of the technology for the standards also already exists: they key dilemma will lay in which existing protocol to ratify and enact.

In some areas, this could be relatively easy. In a proposed standard for substandard automation communication, a significant portion of the "non-standard" aspect of existing equipment now lays with the nomenclature and object models. In other words, each manufacturer uses its own labeling and identification scheme. In many respects, it's a who-cares sort of situation. Standardizing common nomenclature will reduce the time necessary to configure a new piece of equipment and will cut installation times by as much as 90 percent. Europe, in fact, has already adopted a common nomenclature for this kind of technology.

Fourth, accelerated standards have been established before. Ten years ago, utilities would just install garden-variety routers into substations. To eliminate the security and reliability issues, a standard for hardened networking equipment was hammered out in 18 months.

So what are the looming challenges and pitfalls? Fear is a recurring problem.

"The appliance makers want NIST to tell them what the standards of communication are. They want a quick fix dictated by NIST," he said.

A single communications standard may be an unrealistic or unworkable goal. Some regions will want a wired solution while others will opt for wireless. Luckily, putting in networking cards that might operate with three of the most prevalent communication standards should be relatively inexpensive. As a result, NIST may recommend a few standards for home networking and then allow the market and Moore's Law to further narrow it down. Thus, observers shouldn't necessarily expect NIST to come out for ZigBee at the exclusion of all home standards. Instead, a short list of winners will likely be announced.

Ego can be another obstacle. "The people (who are selected to participate in the discussions) are experts in the field. You take these twenty people into a room and they are used to getting their way," he said. "Converging consensus with a group like that is not easy. It takes strong leadership."

NIST also needs to avoid selecting standards that might offer disproportionate benefits to a single vendor. "With quick standards, that can be dangerous," he said. The primary danger with a standard that veers toward one manufacturer is that, typically, such a standard will contain elements of proprietary technology.

For example, a few years ago, a vendor proposed a proprietary standard that was gaining traction. To make it an official standard, the vendor ultimately gave the rights of the basic architecture to the standards body. Although that meant it couldn't collect royalties on its intellectual property, the company still understood it better than others and was able to implement it in a way that made its products more attractive than other competitors.

Basically, it boils down to fear, honor and interest. Interestingly, those were the three things that have often caused nations to go to war, according to Thucydides.