Interoperability – top down or bottom up?


By Nigel Orchard

The UK smart meter implementation programme (SMIP) is well under way. Contracts will shortly be let for the data communications company (DCC) and supporting roles. But why is there such interest in progress in the UK? Neither the concepts nor the technology are new. But so far, the challenges to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which is running the program, have been greater than to any other government institution in the world, and the eventual solution is unlikely to be an orthodox one.

Interoperability is our main problem. Ideally all smart meter components will be interchangeable, but most importantly if a customer switches supplier he expects to be able to do it without replacing the meter. That’s difficult with a structure where the energy retailer is the contractual hub, because of the stranded asset. Most other countries use the distribution networks to roll out smart meters; the natural monopoly and independence from supply makes this much easier. The dual-fuel model in the UK is well established (since the early 1990s) and won’t change because of the huge investment structures set up to support it. But actually since the energy retailer is the most customer facing, it is probably the most equipped agent to help demand side reduction. Whether incentivized to do so remains the question, but if the customer can access innovative energy savings products and services from both inside and outside the retailer’s supply chain, then we have a market that will naturally help to drive demand down.

Energy Services and Technology Association (ESTA) members are technical experts with a focus on demand side and energy consumers, and our products revolve around energy monitoring and targeting, which are core to the SMIP objectives. We believe smart meter requirements will evolve over time and cannot be fully prescribed today. What is needed is an infrastructure that supports an innovation model on an ongoing basis without continuing to involve expensive workshopping and analysis. The DCC model is ideal for independent large scale communications and data management but is bundled too tightly to the current single set of requirements, driven primarily by the early adopting retailers. Consequently it will be very difficult to improve or enhance. The DCC should actually be an open pipe (with appropriate security and access) to allow innovators to offer services that will drive down energy consumption, improve the efficiency of the energy supply chain, and pass savings proportionately to consumers and retailers. These innovators should not necessarily need to be engaged or in contract with the energy retailers themselves.

Without getting too technical, the wide area and home area networks (WAN and HAN) should provide the transparent pipe between the components, to allow generic messages to be passed regardless of content. This will provide the structure onto which applications can be built. The concept is similar to the internet protocol (IP) although will require far less bandwidth. A standard for generic messages to and from the meter already exists in the UK as FLAG. Originally devised for the optical port by Ferranti and Landis+Gyr, with the name taking their initials, it is now widely used for serial communications via telephone, mobile and IP networks. Radio frequency (RF) and powerline carrier (PLC) providers will do well to support the transmission of the “generic” messages like FLAG rather than insisting on designing the application.

For real consumer engagement, energy suppliers need to be proactive – proposing energy savings methods to their customers, rather than obstructing initiatives from those outside their supply chain. Generic protocols such as FLAG allow meter vendors to offer features and functions directly to suppliers in bilateral negotiation (as is currently done) across a thin supporting communications infrastructure. They will fully support the features of both versions of the Smart Meter Technical Specifications (SMETS 1 and 2), including interoperability which SMETS has not yet addressed properly. But they will also allow innovation as a natural market process, rather than one designed by committee. Suppliers and meter vendors should be encouraged to compete against each other in this space, not to club together as is the case today. It is a classic example of the “association” supporting itself rather than the members it is supposed to be serving. In economic terms this works for “scarcity power” but vendors won’t sell any meters, and retailers won’t roll out communcation hubs until the scenario changes.

Current meter and control security implementation, including prepayment and SCADA systems in the distribution network, rely on similar bilateral arrangements between customer and vendor. If there is a security breach the two parties negotiate the remedy. The breach is limited to a particular vendor, and the security improves according to its need. The use of generic messages will allow this method to be continued through into the SMIP in an interoperable way, with many vendors offering different options to the different suppliers. Current SMIP implementation relies on a single top-down security model which if breached, would have devastating consequences. That is why the security requirements appear rather onerous. The open pipe would mitigate these risks from DECC down to an individual meter vendor and supplier. In most cases that will be all that is necessary because the main hacking attempts will be to obtain free energy. A national sabotage would be impossible because it would require inside knowledge of all the meter types and vendors installed. Such breaches would be much more easily traceable.

This bottom-up approach will seem alien to many IT consultants who are used to analyzing from business process requirements downwards. At PC level, technical constraints of bandwidth, coverage, processor power/memory and unit cost often do not enter the equation. But because the DECC SMIP is made up of more than 50% of IT consultants seconded to the program, this is the way it has gone so far. “How can you specify a communication system if you don’t define the details of the data items it supports?”, they will say. That’s a bit like saying “How can you specify the internet without knowing about social networking.” But we all know that is the way it happened. You will need an understanding of the generic messages at the headend level of course, but that can be done using “drivers” uploadable from vendors’ sites, just as is done in mainstream IT. An energy supplier taking on a customer with a new meter type will merely have to upload its “driver.” Readers of this magazine will relate to this, being nearer to the coal-face of meter firmware and the low level communications in RF and PLC than our IT colleagues. Consultants don’t like hardware, and don’t really like solutions unless they are theirs or their clients’, and even then not too quickly!

Here are a couple of tips for DECC going forward:

  1. A security aspect which will make the issue much simpler is to remove the privilege the retailer currently has to remotely disconnect. It has no need for this – its credit management is taken care of in the facility to switch the customer to prepay. Only the distribution network operators need this to de-stress the network. They have this right at the moment, and are a much more controllable group based on geographic monopoly areas. The current DNO security arrangements for SCADA and radio-telemeter could be replicated without burdening DECC with further liability.
  2. The interoperability problem will be solved by upping the stakes here – why on earth are we allowing suppliers to continue rolling out non-interoperable SMETS 1 meters to meet their smart metering obligations? The customer is paying to be tied-in to a single supplier, or for his meter to be discarded and replaced if he wishes to change. All steps should be taken to cease this allowance as soon as possible.

ESTA has been serving on the DECC working groups since smart metering started with a UK government statement in 2006, supported by all political parties. ESTA believes that the smart meter implementation programme will have a substantial positive impact on energy efficiency in the non-domestic demand side sector. With sufficient infrastructure in place to support and drive open competition across suppliers, third parties and new entrants alike, there can be genuine demand reduction and response. The SMIP will accelerate and extend the current works of ESTA members who provide energy efficiency solutions, through the application of automated monitoring and targeting (aM&T) systems. ESTA also believes that handled carefully and with robust consumer engagement, the innovative aM&T developments that are currently improving energy efficiency in the larger non-domestic market could be applied to the domestic market with equal success.

Access to this free and entrepreneurial market of value added service providers is vital if maximum efficiency savings are to be generated through the opportunities provided by the rollout. To achieve this, we require a fair and operational metering market across domestic and industry, with robust interoperability and equal access to the meter for supply and demand side (consumer appointed), to continue the management of energy through the use of aM&T systems. These systems, which encompass AMR and value added services, help consumers manage their utilities producing consumption savings and reducing carbon emissions.

In addition, we require full interoperability of smart meters, consumer approved access to their data via the HAN, a level playing field for 3rd party access to data via the DCC, and the ability for non-domestic DCC opt-out where a supplier may offer an alternative data solution.

ESTA needs acknowledgement, acceptance and assurance from government that members’ existing systems, processes and businesses are not unfairly competed against by the introduction of poorly formed policy, and that a robust, reliable, secure, stable and enduring system is adopted for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Specifically, and to achieve the above from a services perspective, ESTA requires:

  • The ability for the consumer to opt-out of the DCC and place a license condition upon suppliers to keep this avenue open. And make sure that no charges, or supplier or DCC cross subsidies occur under this scenario in order to maintain a level playing field for value added services.
  • The ability for the consumer to determine which read only data can be provided free of charge to nominated 3rd parties via the DCC through the local HAN.
  • An understanding of the specification in terms of actual scope and security for 3rd party HAN access. This is needed to undertake the development of a HAN interface device for nondomestic premises.
  • Due to delays in the programme, a later cut-off date for the smart/advanced meter installations for medium non-domestic users – perhaps in line with availability of fully SMETS 2 compliant interoperable meters being deployed.
Interoperable image

Achieving an interoperable implementation. These processes need to be complete before vendors can commit to silicon, but we are still at item 3 – it will be a challenge to commence rollout in 2014 without changing the implementation method to a bottom-up approach

ESTA’s views in terms of the SMIP are on issues affecting nondomestic consumers (i.e. for electricity profile class 3 or 4, and for gas <32 MWh per year1). ESTA’s continued view is that the size of the SMIP rollout will affect the options available for larger nondomestic sites in future years. It is therefore imperative that ESTA makes sure government understands the impact that solutions designed and developed now for domestic and smaller nondomestic users will have on the current working metering and submetering market. A fair and level playing field for all participants must be maintained.

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