A hybrid world


In a rapidly evolving world, the term ‘hybrid’ is becoming part of our daily lives. The cars we drive are becoming hybrid; relying on a dual source of energy (electricity/gas) to offer reliability and efficiency. The mobile apps that we use are hosted and stored on our phones as well as the cloud to offer reliability and better reach. The solar panels on top of our homes are an example of a hybrid solution for our electricity needs, thus offering reliability and efficiency.

Smart meters are also becoming part of our daily lives; therefore, a hybrid solution is needed to add reliability and efficiency too. We have seen smart meters based on wired or wireless communication technology which have pros and cons, but there is always something missing: robustness of the solution. If we examine wired solutions, among which is Power Line Communication (PLC), we find that occasional high noise levels in the network affect its reliability.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 2-2020. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

When we consider wireless solutions, including RF/GPRS/3G, we find that occasional interference might affect its reliability too. That’s why having a hybrid communication solution integrating both wired and wireless technologies will inevitably add robustness, reliability and efficiency.

To make our hybrid solution a dream come true, we must build it on strong pillars or else it’ll become a nightmare. Nowadays, we see companies offering hybrid solutions which are not following open standard protocols. These are like hybrid cars depending on particular sources of energy that aren’t available in the open market, thereby trapping the owner in the hands of the provider. The same goes for a hybrid smart metering solution that doesn’t follow Open Standard Protocols. These solutions lock you into proprietary technologies that can’t be integrated with other systems and have no clear identity. It is quite easy to mix PLC with RF without clearly defining frequency bands, protocol stacks or even using open standards. Still, if we focus on our goal of every meter supporting flexible communication with routes built hop-to hop, dynamically selecting between the

best available channels, we start to realise the amount of work necessary to achieve integration in different layers. This is particularly true when we include multiple vendors of electricity meters, electricity with water and gas meters and of course integration between all of these meters and the head-end/meter data management systems. Seamless integration requires the use of reliable and flexible open standards that help prevent vendor lock-in (using elastic terms such as IoT without giving any details is simply not enough).

The fastest way to achieve this is through well-established associations and alliances of utilities, chip manufacturers, meter vendors, technology providers and system integrators such as PRIME leading the way and combining their vast experiences in the field to deliver truly interoperable and open communication technologies. The PRIME Alliance is an ideal example as it has successfully managed to evolve from the standardisation of narrow-band PLC (with cutting-edge PRIME v1.4 as its latest advancement) to the standardisation of RF communication, broadband powerline (BPL) and beyond. This standardisation effort will pave the way for hybrid communication technologies that will stand the test of time and produce many generations of meters that support new and exciting combinations of communication technologies without the risk of closing the solution onto specific vendors.

Furthermore, we can’t look at smart electricity meters in isolation from other smart solutions for water, gas and other smart cities applications. Due to the nature of gas and water applications and their sensitivity to the use of electricity as a source of communication, the use of wireless communication is most common. Accordingly, having a hybrid solution following open standard protocols allows us to integrate applications like water and gas while using smart electricity meters as ‘gateways’. Using these hybrid electricity meters as gateways for water and gas meters significantly reduces the cost of the overall solution as well as simplifying it by eliminating the need for external gateway units and cabling infrastructure. The ‘hybrid’ nature of the solution becomes very pertinent as it guarantees that no bottlenecks are created because of the dependency on electricity meters as a gateway for water and gas meter communication. In fact, the RF communication component of the hybrid mix with its mesh topology increases in reliability with the increase in the number of nodes. Moreover, the core of this unified solution (electricity meter) would be powered by the grid instead of batteries.

Finally, we shouldn’t limit hybrid solutions to specific communication technologies, but rather explore alternative mixtures and combine communication technologies depending on the nature of the deployment area. There are various and exciting communication technologies including PLC, TCP-IP for wired Fibre Optic Networks, RF, NB-IoT and 3G/4G (one size doesn’t fit all). If we carefully think about this, we will realise that it encapsulates the essence of what standardised hybrid solutions stand for in smart cities and allows us to achieve robustness. Each type of communication has its advantages and disadvantages, so hybrid solutions will allow us to gain as many advantages as possible whilst mitigating the disadvantages of each standalone communication technology. SEI

About El Sewedy EMG

El Sewedy Electrometer Group (EMG) is proud to be a leading participant in hybrid communication initiatives with the company developing unified solutions for electricity, water and gas smart meters that follow a meticulously developed multi-layered approach. Our primary focus from such initiatives is to address the needs of smart cities across the globe with reliable and future-proof Hybrid Solutions, building on the success of our approach in the new administrative capital project in Egypt. This resulted in El Sewedy EMG being awarded the 231,000 electricity, water and gas metering project with deployment expected to commence within the next couple of months.