PRI: Solving AMI interoperability


Next May EU member states will have to determine how to satisfy the requirements of the End Use Efficiency and Energy Services Directive 2006. Before then, the UK government should have concluded its consultation exercise to examine the options for improved meter reading and billing as well as understanding the costs and benefits of smart metering.

In Australia, following a societal benefit study and stakeholder consultation, the Victorian State Government has mandated the rollout of smart meters over a four-year period commencing January 2009 to a mandated Minimum Functional Specification. The Australian Federal Government has commissioned its own study to determine a minimum national specification for smart meters (phase 1) followed by a cost benefit analysis for national rollout (phase 2).

Attendees at this year’s Autovation Conference were treated to the ever expanding ideas, concepts and solutions that smart metering engenders. These were well constructed for the benefit of those wanting to start making some decisions about how their smart metering strategy should evolve. A common theme throughout the weekend was about how to start the journey, rather than just promoting the destination.

Increasingly, in certain parts of the world, the choice of solution is judged as a one time only choice. This occurs, in part, through lack of interoperability with vendor specific solutions as manufacturers seek to protect their perceived USP and tie in a solution judged to be the best.

Many countries have started – or are about to start – a smart meter rollout. A typical strategy starts with a modest investment, then ticks all the boxes, and finally goes ahead at a measured pace over the following few years. This is the traditional, robust utility approach.


Home Energy Controller

The range of different business models around the world is a focus for governments, academics and regulators – and not least the utilities themselves. Whichever way the future for utilities is cut, be it unbundled, privatised, nationalised or deregulated, the same pieces of the jigsaw remain. Unfortunately the more fragmented the picture gets, the more difficult it is to make it come together. The picture is still the same, but it just takes a little longer to complete and the challenge of interoperability becomes even more pressing. Declaration of a communication protocol and data format will drive some aspects of interoperability but with much of the communications activity for both WAN and LAN/HAN untested for smart meter functionality, we are some distance from deciding on the most robust and universal option. The real challenge – and potentially an impossible task – is how the procurement department can meet the requirements of the network, retail, IT, customer service and regulatory directors and not become hostage to the interoperability trap.

As if the environmental smart meter driver was not enough, the interoperability challenge is intensified by regulatory pressures, increased competition levels and retail wheeling. Let’s return to the jigsaw for the moment and see if the different pieces are, indeed, business model agnostic in a smart metering world by revisiting what stakeholders want.

For customers:

  • Accurate bills and consumption data
  • Detailed information on energy use and options to reduce consumption
  • New tariffs and products, e.g. time-of-use, carbon based, consumption based, load limited, with real “pay as you go” and other flexible payment options
  • Transformation of the change of supplier and occupancy processes.

For energy retailers:

  • Transformation of cost to serve and elimination of estimated bills
  • Transformation of the customer experience with reduced error and process times
  • Reduce bad debt and allow more flexible payment options
  • Extended range of products and services into the home
  • Strategic platform for carbon reduction targets and meeting other governmental supplier obligations
  • Remote connection and disconnection of supply
  • On-demand interval meter readings synchronised and time coded
  • A means to simplify complex competitive market processes.

For government:

  • Facilitate the engagement of customers in energy use and potential CO2 reduction
  • Support the potential for behavioural and technology driven energy efficiency strategies
  • Enable the requirements of the EU Energy Services Directive 2006
  • Provide macro energy management opportunities should energy supply shortages occur.

For network operators:

  • Reduce customer minutes lost in storm and other fault conditions
  • Improve fraud detection and enhance management of technical losses
  • Assist in the control of distributed generation
  • Provide detailed power quality data and other information
  • Provide detailed information to assist in the efficient use of network capital investment
  • Provide greater flexibility for supply restorations and management of cold pick up, etc.

Despite the complex business models, the picture remains the same and so interoperability is the key. PRI has been working with a number of utilities worldwide and has seen firsthand in how many ways this jigsaw puzzle can be assembled. No one way is necessarily better than another, as it depends on prevailing circumstances and the prioritisation given to the multitude of benefits available from the various business cases. From single source proprietary solutions in a national deployment to a region-by-region deployment of different technologies, there is no panacea to smart or advanced metering infrastructure. Yet many projects across the globe are being worked to a standstill trying to identify “the” solution for their country.

This is where PRI has applied its experience and come up with its new SLiM concept. The System Level Interoperability Model is designed to move the smart metering interoperability issue from debate to deployment without having to consign other device level interoperability models to the scrap heap. In doing so it opens the first door to smart meter deployment without closing off any others in the future.

Taking the UK as an example there is already a comprehensive interoperability protocol in place for industry participants – the Data Transfer Catalogue (DTC) and its infrastructure the Data Transfer Network (DTN). These solutions already enable energy retailers, meter operators, networks and wholesaler participants and their agents to exchange data from any meter and meter provider in the UK. Extensions to this model could add the new functionality not available when it was invented back in 1998. Through the use of DTC-compliant SLiM interfaces, AMI vendors can provide the real time communications for demand response programmes and, most importantly, collapse the cost-to-serve by replacing the largely manual systems used today for most meter related activities, especially prepayment solutions. This evolutionary approach can be used to accelerate initial deployment and buy time for later revolution if so desired.

These SLiM devices may offer just the DTC level of interoperability or may go further to provide multi-vendor interfaces downstream of the data interface – perhaps all the way to the device level. This is not designed to replace device level interoperability – far from it; PRI is dedicated to providing a host of in-home interoperable devices from meters, home controls and real time displays. The SLiM concept allows the market to start before dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”.


PRI’s System Level Interoperability Model

It is interesting to note that while the whole of the UK energy supply industry has been galvanised behind the smart metering debate trying to sort out how devices in the home will communicate with each other and back to the utility, far less effort, it would seem, has been expended within the business systems departments of said utilities working out how to grind out the business benefits of smart meters.

The difference between Autovation in Reno and Metering Europe in Vienna during the same week this October was remarkable. In the United States, where AMR has been in large scale deployment for decades, the technology questions were pretty much relegated to the background with a relatively high comfort level of acceptance that whatever type of communications deployment was preferred would be available and reliable. At the fore were Meter Data Management systems specialists focusing on how to deliver maximum benefit from the data provided via this technology choice.

There in the USA, as in Australia, communications standardisation is already happening. Most communications vendors support most meter manufacturers and vice versa, all without standards committees decreeing from the outset the way forward. Alliances have been formed between what might have been uneasy bedfellows a year or two ago. These partnerships have been cemented to accelerate market penetration, whilst reducing stranded asset risk and single source vendor issues. The European show, however, whilst showing signs of maturity, is still largely fascinated with lumps of hardware technology.

So, is PRI’s SLiM concept just a consolidation of all these global approaches that are already happening? Yes and no. As stated earlier, PRI is involved in many facets of smart metering projects, from UK-based smart in-home devices, such as its Home Energy Controller being trialled by EDF Energy as part of the government’s Energy Demand Reduction Project, through to its AMI partnering approaches in Australia and Scandinavia. SLiM unites these quite different objectives and deployments with a strong common “backbone” which will be the real deliverable of any AMI solution with tight integration to Meter Data Management solution providers. SLiM is an enabling concept, a vision which makes it possible to take the first few steps of smart metering deployment in a risk averse world, whilst gifting the time and due diligence to industry working groups to find devicelevel compatibilities and interoperabilities that are best suited to particular market models.

In the UK the clock is running; with smart meters needed from May 2008 – but the current process will cause that date to be missed by years unless the deadlock is broken. An enabling process is needed that takes technical solutions available now and combines them with a progressive rollout model, delivering in the short and long term in a dynamic market.

The SLiM concept opens the door – all you have to do is walk through it.