Advanced metering for the 21st century


In the latter part of the 20th century, North American utilities led the world in applying automation to metering systems. At times various analysts have estimated that anywhere from 80% to 95% of world AMR deployments were at North American utilities. Today, European utilities lead the world in deploying next generation metering systems – providing a solid use case for utilities in North America to emulate.

Starting in 2000 European utilities leapt to the forefront of metering systems technology. Led first by Enel in Italy, which has now deployed over 27 million smart meters in its system, and followed by utilities in countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands, these utilities have completely bypassed AMR and moved to a next generation of metering system. Unlike the AMR systems still prevalent in North America, these new systems provide fast, secure, and highly reliable two-way communications to all meters.

The meters themselves offer a new level of functionality for residential customers, including fully digital designs with integrated disconnects, remote configurability and programmability, detailed power quality measurements, support for a variety of rate plans, multi-channel data logging capability, advanced theft and tamper detection, and more.

The vast superiority of next generation metering over AMR systems leads to two key questions: Why have next-generation systems taken hold in Europe first? Is the experience of European utilities relevant to those in North America and, if so, what should be drawn from it? Given the history of AMR adoption within North America, some might have expected the next generation systems to take hold there first. However, many North American utilities have already made an investment in AMR systems, so their relatively newly purchased AMR equipment often slows the move to new, more advanced systems.

In Europe, with little investment in legacy AMR systems, European utilities are able to move forward more quickly to advanced metering systems. The regulatory and political environment has also played an important role. The European Union began opening markets and unbundling services in late-1996. Energy conservation has been an important part of European energy policy for some time. While North America also has growing political and regulatory forces moving the market, this is a much more recent phenomenon. In many ways North America is following the same arc as Europe, just shifted by several years.

However, the relevance of European advanced metering deployments is often questioned due to perceived technical differences between European and North American power grids. While there are differences, there are also many similarities and much that can be learned. A key difference is that European utilities typically service more residences per transformer. Many utilities in Europe have taken advantage of low cost, bidirectional localised power line communications systems to enable a cluster of meters on a given low voltage transformer to share a single radio frequency (RF) modem, which tends to be one of the more expensive components in the system.

The European approach has proven to be reliable, secure, and cost effective. In contrast, basic AMR systems have typically required an RF card in every meter. While North American utilities may not experience the same magnitude of per-customer cost reduction using this approach, there is still potentially a significant gain. Even sharing the RF card in one meter with two other meters on the same transformer represents a 67% reduction in RF equipment cost and management complexity.

Another often cited difference is that disconnects for North American meters are more expensive than their European counterparts due to the higher amperage provided to residential customers (200 A versus 100 A). While North American disconnects may have historically been more expensive, much of this is due to low volume and use of a retrofit design for electro mechanical meters. When included as an integral part of the product design from day one, the disconnect cost can be dramatically reduced.

Many of the advanced features and operating improvements of advanced systems stem from a remotely controllable disconnect with configurable current limiting capabilities, including remote service disconnect and reconnect, lifeline service, remote upgrade, intelligent load curtailment, and prepaid metering. One other important but often overlooked difference is that North America has a significantly higher percentage of outdoor meters.

In contrast, almost all European meters are indoors. This difference actually represents a significant advantage for North American utilities because it reduces installation costs and logistical complexity. Overall, although there are some differences between North American and European utilities, the importance of these has often been overemphasised or misinterpreted.

There are essential advantages and common attributes of advanced metering systems no matter where they are installed. Europe has taken the lead in implementing advanced metering projects with enhanced security, reliability, availability, and functionality. These represent live, large, working examples of next generation systems and new deployment models that North American utilities can learn from and build upon when looking at how they can move forward through the 21st century.