Britain’s smart metering implementation program


James Pace, Senior
Director of Business
Development, Silver
Spring Networks
By James Pace, Senior Director of Business Development, and John Doyle, Director of Solutions Development Europe, Silver Spring Networks

Ofgem’s highly anticipated prospectus for the rollout of smart meters to every home and small business in the U.K. is currently under consultation. The Smart Metering Implementation Program is central to the government’s ambition for a low carbon economy and its commitment to giving consumers greater control over their energy usage.
In our opinion, Ofgem has done an outstanding job of balancing a set of often conflicting objectives.  In a uniquely complex market structure optimized for consumers to benefit from retail competition, how will the government ensure that the goals of energy independence and carbon reduction are achieved while grid reliability and future capabilities are built in? Perhaps most challenging, how will the government shepherd the establishment of functional requirements for both meters and grids while simultaneously accelerating the roll out of smart meters? 

Today’s distribution networks present significant challenges for the government.
Already intermittent, renewable generation sources are coming on-line and electric vehicles (EVs) are being delivered to customers wanting to reduce their carbon footprint. How will the government ensure a reliable grid where the lights are always on while answering their constituents’ question: “How does a smart meter save me money now?”

We have a sanguine view of what can be done in both the near term and long term, and we believe that the Ofgem prospectus signals a positive step forward.

From the perspective of a communications networking company that has deployed smart grids for many utilities with millions of smart meter and smart grid devices, we know that the government’s objectives are achievable. The foundation of any smart grid deployment is the communications network. The right communications architecture can deliver a cost effective, reliable, and responsive platform for not only smart metering but other applications such as EVs coordinating with transformer monitors and inverters interacting with volt-VAR controls (i.e. smart grids). With the right architecture two-way, real time consumer engagement becomes a cost effective reality. Conversely, choosing the wrong communications architecture could deliver little beyond once-a-day revenue meter reading and bring extremely limited consumer benefits. As such, selecting a capable communications platform is the first critical step.

Smart meters and grids require a unified communications platform connecting devices that generate, distribute, consume or monitor energy. There is some debate about which technologies are best suited for the task. As Ofgem shepherds suppliers, networks, and vendors through the definition of functional requirements and standards (due date: Summer 2011), we think the following key guidelines should inform the process:

Emphasize standards
Ensure that technologies that are procured by the Data Communications Company adhere to internationally recognized standards and standards track work, as set out by organisations such as IEEE, ETSI, and the IETF. Importantly, ensure that both WAN and HAN interfaces are based on IP (Internet Protocol) and, ideally, IPv6. The use of IP (and protocol layering) allows for the evolution of applications beyond simple metering and for future proofing of new generations of underlying transports, starting with IP over GPRS today.

It is a truism that modern, scalable communications networks use IP, as does almost every modern consumer facing network application. We feel strongly that IP natively at every endpoint should be mandated as a lowest common denominator requirement.

Be secure
Security should be at the heart of any communications network and we believe that all claims pertaining to security should be vetted by Ofgem and third parties. To borrow a phrase, we assert that "sunlight is the best disinfectant": well known, open security implementations based on IP such as those used in everyday online banking have been tested and hardened over decades of use. Don’t conflate proprietary, "security through obscurity" assertions with actual security.

Support multiple applications
The prospectus was clear that requirements for smart grid must also be considered in the supplier-led metering roll out. There must be enough upstream bandwidth to allow for applications beyond once-a-day, revenue metering. In fact, a system that is only capable of delivering once-a-day meter readings will likely be deemed a failure by consumers. To be clear, smart metering and smart grids do not require the sorts of speeds needed to stream video to your meter; applications that address grid reliability do, however, require kilobits per second speeds and, importantly, high reliability.

The guidelines above do not constitute some futuristic wish list but rather are being followed by utilities worldwide to the benefit of millions of consumers. Millions of IP-based electric meters have been installed by utilities in the Americas and Australia with extremely high levels of performance ( 99.8%), and EV charging applications are being deployed over these same networks. Utilities are running multiple applications, including distribution automation such as volt-VAR control across networks initially deployed for metering applications. And, the same IP-based communications networks are being leveraged for energy efficiency, demand response, and meaningful consumer engagement at large scales. 

There will be some hard choices in the coming months as we move towards establishing functional requirements for Great Britain’s’ smart metering program. We have seen this in Victoria, Australia, in the form of the Victoria DPI specifications and in the United States with the NIST Interoperability Standards Project. In both, the vision is set to leverage communications networks holistically, for both metering and grid reliability. We salute efforts towards the building of consensus during this process, but we also observe that consensus is not the same as unanimity. We cannot afford deadlock or inaction.

Last, it is not a foregone conclusion that there must be two networks or two architectures to address metering and grid applications. A sound architecture and solid standards can address both metering and the evolving requirements of the grid. It is not a stretch to assert that with the right network platform, this rollout can lay the foundation for smart cities and the Internet of Things, where millions of everyday objects are securely networked for the benefit of Great Britain’s consumers.