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Utilities focus: smart metering

The days of the meter reader are numbered

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ANALYSIS
From one at a time to all at once, smart technology is changing meter reading.
From one at a time to all at once, smart technology is changing meter reading.

Advances in technology have fundamentally changed the way utility demand and consumption can be monitored, measured and billed. Better billing means better cash flow and lower operational costs, all of which sound good to most CFOs.

Smart metering and the concept of the smart grid have taken hold in the minds of utility providers, but the successful, widespread, implementation and operation of such technology is something that will take time to fully emerge. There is a learning process that must be gone through, both for the utilities and the smart manufacturers.

At the recent smart metering conference in Dubai, this point was highlighted by Wolfgang Braun, general manager of transmission and distribution in the lower Gulf region for Siemens.  

“We have to listen to customers and what they want,” he said. “The technology is here, but it is not integrated. We need a stronger link with utilities to bring about implementation. We need to know what they need now, tomorrow and in ten years time. We can introduce the utilities to what is  possible.”

Braun suggested that the right application of the smart metering and grid technology currently available could help reduce electricity consumption, without having an impact on consumer lifestyles.

The idea that consumers and companies can benefit from the deployment of smart technology is giving impetus to the drive to introduce them elsewhere in the world. A collaboration between ETSI (the European Telecommunications Standards Institute) and the European Smart Metering Industry Group (ESMIG), was announced recently and is expected to accelerate the deployment of smart meters in Europe.

Increased accuracy, reduced costs, improved consumer choice and environmental benefits are all on the wish list. One of the issues at hand is the need for open system architecture – smart parlance for bits of kit that can talk to each other – for utility meters. The information transfer options are varied, such as wireless short-range communications, power line communications (i.e. the transport of data over electricity supply networks), mobile communications and communications on wireless sensors networks. But some of these are dependent on further development.

However, the prospects of the benefits have spurred the European Parliament into action. In April it reached agreement on the EU Energy Package, which includes a mandate for the roll-out of smart meters in all EU member states by 2022, with 80% coverage the target for 2020.

“It has been a hugely positive [move] as smart metering gains political momentum in Europe,” said Ad van der Meys, executive vice president EMEA at Landis+Gyr, in a statement. “The European Parliament has recognised smart metering as a key enabling technology. Only through its mandatory deployment across member states will the EU be able to meet its 2020 goals.

“Member states must now consider how they are going to put these binding words into action. They can draw encouragement from a growing pool of pioneering smart meter projects which are delivering tangible benefits in the here and now, from 30 million meters across Italy to EDF’s trials in France which should lead to the deployment of 35 million meters.”

Software’s essential role in making the smart grid a reality - along with intelligent devices and communications networks – is demonstrated by the profile Oracle is giving to its recently announced smart grid offering – ostensibly a collection of packages for various spots in the value chain. The company’s positioning of the products matches the market mood expressed by Braun, it is a period of transition and learning for those in the process of applying the technology. Oracle claims to tackle both sides of the equation, allowing utilities to choose how to manage their operations and provide information to consumers, to enable them to make better  usage decisions. 

“The flexibility and scalability of our smart grid software, as well as Oracle’s broad software offering, enable both immediate benefits now and an easier transition to a full smart grid architecture in the future,” said Quentin Grady, senior vice president and general manager, Oracle Utilities, in a statement.

In this region the benefits may come from helping people realise how much power and water they consume, by turning real-time data into actionable information. DEWA is in the midst of a smart metering pilot programme and is anticipating an eventual phased roll out of smart technology across the emirate.

“DEWA desires to automate processes and upgrade metering systems to the latest state of the art technology,” said Saeed Mohammed Al Tayer, CEO of DEWA at the smart metering conference. “We instigated a pilot to look at the possibility of metering automation, as well as remote reading, disconnection and reconnection.”

As the authority moves to the first phase of smart metering, its attention is focused on verification and scaleability, creating a system compatible with a number of metering manufacturers’ products. Different means of system communication will be tested and connection load monitoring, demand-side management and power quality monitoring are some of the applications that will be implemented, according to Al Tayer.

“Various regional utilities are watching this initiative with great interest,” he said.

“From a strategic point of view we have the reliability of the system and customer service. We actually envisage that this system will improve customer service tremendously.”

Al Tayer also expects that smart metering will help with controlling load for district cooling. Power conservation and optimised load growth could be other potential benefits to the system.

“There are many benefits,” he said. “The feasibility is still under study. We will install 4500 meters and we need some time to evaluate [how they are working]. We have to study the pros and cons. This metering will help us start the drive toward a reduction of consumption, one of the objectives of DEWA.”

Al Tayer is also anticipating savings through a reduction in line losses. DEWA currently has an estimated line loss of 3.4%, but this could go as low as 2%, which, in Al Tayer’s words ‘makes it a good investment for DEWA’.

Widespread roll out will be handled internally by the authority, which has ordered about 20000 meters. It is believed that 2010 will be a year of evaluation, with Al Tayer being clear that the meters have to operate successfully through the peak summer period and then, based on the summer performance, a plan for full phased replacement of meters will be developed off the back of that.

Although a fully active smart grid  may be years away, the meter reader’s days are definitely numbered.

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