Metering – Making the smart move

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With energy efficiency high on the Coalition’s agenda, we are continually seeing various initiatives put in place to control energy use, lower bills and diminish carbon emissions. The latest initiative in discussion is smart meters and how a national roll-out will encourage and direct the UK towards a greener economy.  As the Government calls upon industry experts and providers to submit proposals on how best to conduct this roll-out, Andy Slater, director at smart grid communications specialist Sensus urges the Government to consider all the variables that will contribute to a successful national roll-out

Details of the proposed roll-out of smart meters in the UK have now been revealed by the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and Ofgem. Viewing smart metering as integral to its ‘green deal’ – the policy of enabling households to reduce the amount of energy they use by improving their own energy efficiency - the government has proposed smart meters as the ideal way of increasing consumers' awareness of their energy use, giving them control over their consumption during peak times and allowing suppliers to offer innovative tariff structures, benefiting customers who reduce their energy consumption.
The Prospectus signifies a sense of determination by the government to roll-out smart meters across the country, partly motivated by the anticipated financial savings in the domestic and smaller non-domestic sectors. In the prospectus, the government points to anticipated cost savings of £17.8bn over the next 20 years, and a net benefit of £7.2bn. Furthermore, the reduction of the nation’s carbon footprint via smarter energy use will, in time, demonstrate the benefits of such an initiative.

Whilst the end results are deeply encouraging, there is a fear that this urgency to deploy smart metering systems could lead the government to unwittingly choosing a communication network that could cost the UK an additional £1.8bn if the meters fail to connect to the network, due to poor coverage. This is an issue that will be heavily dependent on the type of network technology chosen for the national roll out.

Leading industry players, including British Gas and Arqiva with BT, have already demonstrated their support for the roll-out, launching smart meter trials with different network technology. It has become clear the two technologies used in trials, cellular and long-range radio, are the two most debated options for national roll-out.

For a successful smart meter roll-out, key attributes the government needs to ensure are; A robust, dedicated network to ensure performance, security and availability to utilities, underpinned with service level agreements; A cost effective and very high first-time connection rate for meters enabling smart metering to be available universally to all, minimising second visits to homes and any additional engineering costs; a proven pathway for smart grid applications and other utilities, like water, to join in the future with minimal impact and a proven ability to cope with demand.

It is in some of these key areas other technologies, like cellular, can fall short. This also raises the issue that the government needs to begin stipulating targets for each of these variables in order to observe which network is able to meet them, thereby leading to a conscientious decision.

Meter connectivity for example is an issue that certainly requires a target, as adopting a network that fails to connect could end up costing the UK more than it aims to save. The government needs to stipulate the percentage of meters it anticipates covering by the smart meter network – a target of which should fall above 90%. Cellular provider Vodafone estimates only 70% of UK homes will have cellular coverage to their meter cupboard. This is not because of a lack of coverage but due to cellular signals not penetrating areas to where meters are actually located. Therefore if cellular is chosen as the network solution what will happen to the 30% (9million) homes that don’t have adequate cellular coverage?

When looking at other benefits for both communication technologies, it is clear that the benefits of long-range radio over cellular have not been fully appreciated. It is fundamental a robust communications network is stimulated to ensure the uninterrupted flow of information between customer and supplier. Significant effort should therefore be made to create a dedicated and cost-efficient, nationwide platform. In this instance it is too easy to assume this would be a key benefit for cellular as the network is already in place and proven to work. This would be a superficial assessment. The fact cellular is already in use for consumer mobile applications hardly assures it will be optimised for securely connecting fixed devices buried in cupboards and basements like our electricity and gas meters.

Although it’s a fairly new technology in Europe, long-range radio has proven to successfully provide high first-time meter connectivity rates and widespread coverage across urban and rural areas in North America. Experience has shown it to have a first-time connection rate to meters of greater than 95% within coverage areas - ensuring a minimal number of homes are left unconnected. Long-range radio services like FlexNet were designed from the outset solely for smart metering and grid applications which should instil some confidence into the market that it is a network that can be trusted, to serve its purpose. By offering a dedicated and secure network with universal coverage, long-range radio offers communications of a quality suitable for what should be regarded as part of the UK’s critical infrastructure. With the masts already in place the roll-out of this network would only take a matter of months.

Whichever communication network is selected for the UK, it must be the one that offers the best quality of service to consumers and business at a competitive cost. If a network type is selected which does not build and protect customer confidence with high meter connection rates and if financial savings could be jeopardised as a result of not doing this, then additional costs and delays will be experienced. Therefore, I urge the government in their consultation to consider setting targets for meters connection rates and to ensure new solutions, such as long-range radio, are fully considered.

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