Enabling a successful smart meter roll-out

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The UK government needs to reduce the country’s carbon emissions, increase its use of renewable energy, secure the future supply of energy to meet demand, and fulfil current European Union (EU) initiatives and regulations. A successful smart meter roll-out will help support these aims as it will allow consumers to make more informed choices about their energy use and consumption, helping them to reduce emissions and save money. The government estimates that over the next 20 years, the roll-out of smart meters will deliver around £7 billion net benefits to consumers, energy suppliers and networks. With so many potential benefits, David Green, SmartReach, believes  simplicity is the key to a successful smart metering roll-out in Britain

Smart meters will be installed in more than 30 million homes and small businesses before the end of 2019. Making this process as efficient as possible is important to the success of the government’s initiative because from 2014, an estimated 30,000 meters will be deployed every day. An essential component of the smart metering system is the communications network that will connect customers’ meters to their energy suppliers and distribution network operators. It is imperative that everyone benefits from the deployment of these new meters which have the ability to provide useful data for both consumers and the utility companies. The success of the roll-out depends on it happening quickly and efficiently, and consumer engagement must remain strong throughout for all the potential benefits to be reached.

It’s a matter of simplifying the roll-out
It is important to consider the unique challenges in Great Britain for smart metering communications, not least the need to reach meters in all homes, including those in “hard to reach” locations such as basements and cupboards, where meters are typically located. To combat this, and in an attempt to close coverage “gaps”, some proposed communications solutions combine multiple technologies. However, the use of an unproven technology or one that is not fit for purpose in the UK, could lead to additional costs and delays in connecting smart meters in each home.

While other proposed solutions would rely on a combination of, often unproven, technology for metering, long-range radio has shown through various trials that it’s possible to connect smart meters wherever they are, first time, using a single communications technology. As part of SmartReach’s trials with ScottishPower starting in 2012, over 99% of meters in trial areas in Scotland and Ipswich were connected with a single installation visit to each home. The Scottish trial covered meters located outside and deep inside buildings, in basements and flats across rural and dense urban areas. For example, the trial in Lochwinnoch, replicated the types of rural location that alternative communications networks like cellular typically find hard to reach. Densely populated Glasgow presented a different kind of communications challenge, with meters located deep inside buildings, including basements, but even here long-range radio is proven to connect with a single installation visit.

The success of the Scottish trial was achieved before network optimisation by SmartReach, which would further increase the connection rates, and without the use of so-called secondary ‘infill’ communications technology or any other special communications solutions. It is vitally important that the technology that is used for smart metering in Great Britain has been proven to successfully connect to meters in all types of locations and buildings under the unique conditions in Britain.

Implementing a single communication technology would make sense in terms of cost and ease of deployment. All energy retailers in the UK currently work on a national basis and therefore the current proposal to split the country into three regions will add complexity and cost to the roll-out. This is because engineers in different regions will need different training and may use different communications hubs (the equipment to connect meters in each home to the network), resulting in a complex supply chain and different service levels for customers. In addition, between the contract for the communications service being awarded in June 2013 and going live in 2014, data and communications services need to be integrated. This will be much harder if there are multiple Communication Service Providers (CSPs), especially if some of these use multiple technologies.

Keeping it simple
Smart meters need to be treated as a critical infrastructure and as such, they need a secure, dedicated communications network designed specifically for utilities. From the start, it will also be essential to be able to communicate with meters whenever a customer gets in touch with a contact centre. Prepay customers will also want to be able to re-credit meters quickly – such convenience is an expected benefit of smart metering. If the WAN network is not available when it is needed, they could face unacceptable delays.

Looking ahead, one mission critical application is Demand Side Response, where consumers may choose a tariff which offers a discount in return for having some services, such as water heating or electric vehicle charging, cycled by their energy retailer in order to reduce the peak demand on the distribution network. As this provides protection for the distribution network, it is essential that the communications network can guarantee delivery of these control signals in a timely manner. These services would not work with a network that only connects to meters for part of the day.

Creating a positive consumer experience
The introduction of smart meters in Britain is a one-off opportunity to engage consumers, and increase their awareness of the importance of energy and change attitudes to what lies ahead. A positive customer experience from smart metering could help to build up trust levels and satisfaction; for example, the installation visit presents a great opportunity for utility companies to engage with customers and influence their attitudes. Utility companies already need to go into millions of homes to install the units and it would create a huge logistical challenge if they were required to go back and repair the connection. It would also cause reputational damage if consumers don’t have a good experience using the meters, and may result in people not wanting them in their homes, thus stopping the rollout in its tracks.

Trouble free transformation
Smart metering offers a great opportunity to transform Britain’s energy industry, helping to reduce carbon emissions, increase the use of renewable energy and secure the future supply of energy to meet demand. This would help us all to save energy and money and help the UK reach the targets set by the EU. However, as a technology will be installed for the first time into millions of homes, it can lead to uncertainty at multiple levels; raising questions such as how quickly can smart meters be rolled out? And to what extent consumers will embrace them and reap the benefits? Using a single, proven and dedicated technology is vital to ensure a positive consumer experience and to ensure that the potential benefits of the smart meter roll out are achieved.