Smart metering and the creation of a smart grid in the UK is seen as a critical part of the mix when it comes to tackling climate change and making power savings in the future.
As such, it is viewed with some interest by the behemoths of the communications space as they jostle for position and make their play for the management of a sector said to be worth more than £7bn in the UK alone, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (GEMA).
In Europe, analysts at Greenbang, an independent sustainability research firm, predict the smart electricity market will top £25bn by 2020.
With the Government wanting smart meters rolled out nationally within the next 10 years, the big question is who will run the network controlling these and what will this network actually look like? Will it be fixed line, wireless or a mixture of both?
Those at No.10 would prefer a single national network supplier but there is scope for a distributed network run by energy suppliers or perhaps regional network operators.
But having recently issued its Smart Metering Implementation Programme Prospectus in conjunction with Ofgem, which sets out proposals and asks for views on how smart metering will be delivered, the Government seems keen to deploy smart meters in the UK’s 28 million homes and small businesses ahead of schedule if possible.
Indeed, should the infrastructure supporting the rollout be in place by 2013 as hoped, meter deployments will swiftly follow, with some even predicting that the government may have everything in place as soon as 2016.
Against a backdrop of cuts this may seem wishful thinking at best, but it gives you some idea of the emphasis being placed upon this lucrative sector, both by the companies vying for a share and those governments seeking to cut carbon emissions and energy consumption.
And while smart metering and the smart grid rollout clearly have the potential to be game changing in terms of carbon emission and energy consumption reduction in the UK, to deliver on its promise, any network will need to be capable of high availability and resiliency, low latency and high throughput to enable smart grid services.
As such, the technology challenges of making the smart grid a reality in a cost effective way should not be underestimated, says Amy Cooke, business development director at Cable&Wireless Worldwide.
‘There are many ways of connecting the smart meters to the grid – each with different technology and cost profiles, suitable for different population densities, and different geographies,’ she says.
‘We believe the most cost effective manner in which to implement smart utility services has to be based on the best technology choice for each circumstance. We believe that any workable solution would have to be a hybrid one, encompassing a mixture of solutions including wireless and fixed line elements.’
BT was among the first to reveal its plans as the company announced its intention to offer a dedicated, secure long-range radio network in partnership with Detica and Arqiva, based upon the latter’s licensed spectrum in the 412-414MHz band.
According to Jo Wright, VP, smart meters/smart grids at BT, long-range radio offers a number of key features that makes it a cost effective and efficient way of building a network for smart meters.
‘It offers a dedicated, secure network and is designed to provide near universal GB coverage for electricity, gas and water meters with minimal network infrastructure,’ she says.
Perhaps rather importantly, it would also ensure that the signals to communicate with people’s meters can reach into cellars and cupboards meaning that meter rollout would minimise costs associated with moving meter sites and reconnecting.
Wright says it also offers a multi-utility solution for electricity, gas and water meters, with the ability to independently roll out each smart utility service.
In addition, it offers solutions for the distribution network operators to gain more effective monitoring and control over electricity distribution. ‘It’s important to realise that the total cost has to take into account building the infrastructure, deploying it in 28 million premises and the ongoing cost of maintaining it,’ she adds. ‘We believe long range wins on all three elements.’
Of course, the mobile operators want to play their part too and they have been busy creating partnerships of their own as they bid to ensure they don’t go hungry when feeding time comes around.
Vodafone has been working alongside British Gas to provide network access and install some two million units within two years, while rival Orange has been busy in trials with nPower and Scottish and Southern Energy.
With solid public cellular networks of their own, the likes of Vodafone, Orange and 02 – which has also declared an interest – feel they are well placed to grab a share of this business.
Yet the argument against cellular in some quarters seems well founded, particularly when Vodafone revealed that only 70% of UK homes have cellular coverage to their meter cupboard in Carbon Connections in July 2009. This would leave some nine million homes without adequate cellular coverage.
Although this appears to be a major flaw, Vodafone is at pains to stress the continual investment it is making in its network is paying off.
‘It’s worth noting that we cover more than 87% of the population who are using their mobiles indoors,’ explains a spokesperson for the company.
‘We also have reliable and consistent coverage in remote and rural areas, to the extent that organisations like Mountain Rescue teams use Vodafone’s reliable network to ensure they can connect where and when they need to.’
Security is also another major consideration. As BT’s Wright points out, any communications infrastructure needs to be in place for the long-term, with meters lasting for 15 years or more.
'Nobody can predict every communications dependent application that will emerge over that sort of timeframe and we think it is vital that no unexpected comms-heavy applications or unpredictable users are potentially sharing a communications infrastructure upon which a dependable energy supply relies,’ she adds. ‘Hence we think it needs to be dedicated to smart meter and grid.’
Andy Slater, director at smart metering specialist Sensus, offers further insight into this thinking.
‘We see this as a piece of critical national infrastructure, a bit like the TETRA network, provided by one supplier and it’s done because it’s secure, it’s dedicated and its purpose built, providing a vital service,’ he says. ‘We think the smart meter and smart grid network for the UK should be regarded along the same lines.
‘We’re not trying to bend a mobile network that was designed for assets that are on the move and constantly changing base stations and delivering consumer internet services,’ he adds. “We’re not trying to bend that for something for which it wasn’t designed. This is why it connects so reliably and why we think it is much more secure.’
‘Utilities prefer to have a dedicated network for security reasons,’ explains Mark Ossel, VP, EMEA at Echelon, a company that Greenbang identifies as being top of its key influencers of the smart metering market, having already rolled out some 27 million units in Italy between 2000 and 2005 in a partnership with Enel Spa.
Yet, as the economies of scale offered by other M2M opportunities mature, there may be an economic case to be made for mobile networks in certain circumstances, says Tim Morey, director of business and technology consulting, Aricent.
‘An example might be low density neighbourhoods, where installing new