Building the utility of the future

By Jeff Lund

As utilities look to make the leap from their basic meters or meter reading systems of the past to the flexible, extensible advanced metering infrastructure systems of the future, the picture changes. Unlike an AMR system, which has limited and fixed function, next generation advanced metering systems produce a rich set of information that can be integrated into and affect many areas of utility operation. They not only gather information from the customer site but also communicate back to the customer through a two way network and perform local control, creating the opportunity for new applications and ongoing improvements in customer service and utility operations. And, with the ability to remotely load new settings or even new firmware into field devices, they create a platform that will deliver future functionality that we have not yet begun to imagine.

With these types of systems, the price of the meters – while still important – will not be what determines if the system is cost effective. In a world where ever more data flows across the system and an ever expanding set of applications are enabled, the cost of communications and IT integration will become the dominant costs. They will determine what is technically feasible and economically viable to implement.

Therefore, utilities looking to maximise the value – and minimise the cost – of their advanced metering investments should focus on using standards to drive out cost and commoditise communications and IT integration. Fortunately, most of the rest of the industrial world is focused on these same topics.

Meter family

For backhaul, wide-area communications, standardising on a protocol – IP, the protocol of the Internet – rather than a particular technology such as 900 MHz RF is the key to minimising costs and maximising flexibility over the life of the system. A wealth of IP connectivity options is becoming increasingly available at lower costs from utility- and telecommunication-centric providers with technologies such as meshed WiFi, WiMax, and 3G cellular networks, and there is the promise of even more options as governments auction off new radio spectra to create additional wireless Internet options. Standardising on IP not only eliminates WAN lock-in but also allows multiple WAN technologies to be used in the same system concurrently and over time. This lets utilities continue to advance with technology and ensures an ongoing competitive market for transport.

In the world of enterprise software, the market has moved to a Service- Oriented Architecture (SOA) approach not only to minimise integration effort but also to ensure an ongoing competitive market for integration services and enterprise applications. Web services are the most common standards-based way to realise SOA. By exposing the functionality of the underlying metering system to enterprise applications as a collection of web services and events independent of the WAN(s) in use, new or multiple WANs can be used in the system without needing to rewrite business applications. Utilities can select from a range of off-the-shelf web services-aware business applications that work with almost any IT integrator for integration services, and new custom applications can be easily created using an assortment of standard tools.

By building on standard networking technology (IP) and enterprise integration technology (web services), the utility of the future can be independent from the WAN and the IT integrator, ensuring a competitive market for the utility over the life of the system.