Running Man,Network connection turned into, vector illustration.

After almost two decades of large-scale smart meter rollouts and technology evolutions, the time has come to draw up a summary and see where we are. Have the investments paid off? Were the technology selections commercially and technically appropriate? And even more importantly, where are we going and what are the next steps?

About twenty years ago, it was these questions about the return on investment and the selection of appropriate connectivity technology that were fundamental before taking the decision to make a multibillion-dollar investment in a large scale rollout.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International Issue 5-2020.
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Italy was the first country that took the decision with the ambitious target to start a nationwide deployment of 30 million meters. The question as to whether the investment paid off can be clearly confirmed. The return on investment was achieved in less than ten years and today they are in the process of installing the second wave, replacing smart meters which have reached the defined lifespan of 10 to 15 years.

During this time, more large-scale deployments got under way with the biggest portion coming from monopolists and oligopolists in France, Spain, Sweden and Finland, which combined will reach an installation rate of roughly 43% of smart electricity meters in the EU27 by the end of 2020.

Progress was also made from the governmental point of view. Comparing the results of the cost-benefit-analysis (CBA) from 2018 to the results of 2013, there have been many countries who revised the rating from “negative” to “positive”. This also reflects the fact that there are more countries now with defined installation plans going up to and beyond 2030, than in 2018 or earlier years.

Looking from the technology perspective, narrowband power line communications (PLC) became dominant with three major standards gaining traction in the European marketplace (PRIME, G3-PLC and Meters and More). All of them have been driven by the biggest European utilities by establishing dedicated alliances with various working groups, taking care of the various aspects such as technology specification, testing, promotion and finally certification. The latter being one of the most important aspects, as it ensures the interoperability of products, not only on the chip level, but also on the product level. These certifications and proven interoperability are fundamental in securing investments by eliminating dependencies on single suppliers.

From an “overall” European perspective, the total effort made by all stakeholders is clearly higher than it could have been. Differences between the PLC technologies are not so big as to justify a tripling of work and investment for specification development and maintenance, implementation, field trials, certifications, larger pilot trials, mass installation and last but not least, the evolution of technologies. All of this overhead, without creating additional markets, is rather the nature of a competitive and political environment.

The fact is, what started two decades ago, with the major use case being the ability to read a meter remotely, is currently evolving into “something” that is termed “the smart grid”. Nowadays, this term is used as the synonym for a wide range of applications and use cases, including remote meter reading, demand response, network sensing, renewable energy integration, and many more. Whilst there are no firm boundaries on which applications and segments are covered, they have one thing in common: a fully automated and integrated two-way communication system between all entities in the network.

… THERE ARE MORE COUNTRIES NOW WITH DEFINED INSTALLATION PLANS GOING UP TO AND BEYOND 2030, THAN IN 2018…

Taking PLC as reference for the communication technology, there are further evolutions in the specification caused by new requirements coming from additional use cases and applications. These evolutions are visible in the various working groups of the different alliances, e.g. including an RF link for a hybrid technology. Integrating an RF link allows products to select between wired and wireless media for communication in a single “logical” network, increasing reachability in cases where PLC links fail or allowing the network to expand into other application areas such as water or gas metering.

The PRIME Alliance has also established another working group which covers the use of broadband PLC. This is to extend the scope to applications which require higher bandwidth or lower latency. Another PRIME Alliance initiative which is worth mentioning is the PRIME+ interoperability platform, based on a well-defined DLMS/COSEM Companion Specification. This initiative is to ensure interoperability even on the application level, which is a big advantage for utilities across the globe.

What is becoming visible from this snapshot of activities during the last 20 years is that there are mature technologies in place used in many millions of products in many regions across Europe and the world. Future use cases are clearly defined, and a technology expansion roadmap is in place which will allow them to be turned into reality.

At the very forefront of the enabling technology providers are semiconductor manufacturers such as Renesas Electronics, who are turning connectivity demands into reliable, proven, and commercially competitive semiconductor solutions ready to be used in end products. From the very beginning, Renesas has been following the concept of a future-proof product strategy when introducing the PLC modem family Cool Phoenix to the market back in 2012.

Cool Phoenix 3 (CPX3) is the third-generation device of this product family. It supports worldwide frequency bands such like CENELEC A, B and C as well as FCC and ARIB. Even more importantly, it has utmost flexibility regarding the above-mentioned protocols. No changes are required to any product design to switch from one protocol to another and any potential updates or fixes to the protocol standards can be performed remotely. Beside the required interoperability, there is still space for differentiation. CPX3 features dedicated algorithms allowing it to cope with typical electrical signal distortions even if they are very dominant and therefore keeps the communication alive even under extremely severe conditions.

CPX3 has been re-certified to the latest versions of G3-PLC and PRIME 1.3.6 and is now in the certification process for PRIME 1.4, making Renesas the first supplier to cover backward compatibility and security profiles.

Looking into the architecture for hybrid solutions, there will be no changes for the customers using CPX3. Simply by adding Renesas’ own transceiver, connected to the CPX3 and reusing the same interface to the host controller, will allow customers a seamless implementation of products supporting hybrid connectivity based on open protocols such as PRIME or G3.

Whatever the demand will be in the future and however the standards will evolve, it needs pioneers and enabling technology providers such as Renesas to turn visions into reality.

About the author

Christos Aslanidis has been working in the semiconductor industry for 25 years, covering various positions in research & development, application engineering and marketing. Today he is working for Renesas Electronics Europe, managing the Connectivity Solutions Department of the Industrial Automation Business Development Division in EMEA.

About Renesas Electronics Corporation

Renesas Electronics Corporation (TSE: 6723) delivers trusted embedded design innovation with complete semiconductor solutions that enable billions of connected, intelligent devices to enhance the way people work and live. A global leader in microcontrollers, analogue, power, and SoC products, Renesas provides comprehensive solutions for a broad range of automotive, industrial, infrastructure, and IoT applications that help shape a limitless future.