The UK smart meter rollout is set to begin towards the end of 2014, with nationwide coverage mandated by 2019, so a range of technological solutions are still being considered.
The UK Government wants smart meters for utilities in 30 million homes by 2019. The communications service provider part of the £11bn Smart Metering Implementation Programme (SMIP) is split into three geographically based contracts, each worth up to £1.5bn.
‘The government is currently evaluating which smart metering communications technology should be used for the nationwide smart metering rollout, which is due to start at the end of 2014. Long-range radio, cellular and mesh based solutions are all being considered,’ says David Green, business development manager of SmartReach, a dedicated smart metering communications solution based on Long Range Radio (LRR) connectivity and one of the bidders for the three communications service provider contracts.
It provides a high quality, secured wide area network (WAN) service connecting smart meters in homes across Great Britain, wherever they are located. SmartReach is backed by four companies: Arqiva, BT, BAE Systems Detica and Sensus.
‘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 in hard to reach locations such as basements and cupboards under stairs. To combat this, and in an attempt to close coverage gaps some proposed communications solutions combine multiple technologies – some of which have been used in Great Britain and some that have only been implemented internationally,’ he adds.
However, given that the requirements are unique, Green says it is vital that technology that is already proven to reach smart meters is used across Great Britain. ‘The use of an unproven technology, or one that is not fit for purpose for the UK, could lead to additional costs and delays in connecting smart meters in each home.’
Green, however, claims the coverage challenge may have been over-stated. ‘Our experience through GB trials has shown that it is possible to connect over 99% of smart meters first time, using a single long-range radio technology in all types of locations.’
Unlike other countries, the UK is expected to have a separate smart meter network to its power distribution communications network. Green thinks this is less clear-cut.
‘As far as we understand it’s still being decided whether the UK will have a separate smart meter network to its power distributions communications network,’ he says. ‘Only once DECC [the UK government Department of Energy and Climate Change] has decided on the technology for the smart meter roll-out can distribution network operators start to decide what will happen with it.’
In the meantime, the focus remains on smart metering communications. Green thinks the right decision will be to select a system that allows for future growth in scope.
‘While the current focus is on a service for smart metering communications, there is the potential for the selected technology to meet future smart grid and smart water metering requirements. To support future smart grids needs, we would need to choose a smart metering communications technology that is resilient and designed to be always available,’ he says.
That won’t be a simple step to address. Smart water metering creates tough challenges for communications networks that need to reach meters in underground pits, for example,
but Green is unconcerned. ‘We have proven that the SmartReach solution can meet the communications requirements of the power distribution networks and water companies, as well as smart metering for the energy industry,’ he adds.
There has been significant debate about using cellular communications for smart meters but many are deployed deep in buildings or where there is poor or no cellular coverage. In addition, Green thinks a critical networkof this nature needs to be separate from the commercial cellular networks.
‘We believe that the smart meter network needs to be treated as a critical infrastructure and therefore needs to be a secure, dedicated network designed specifically for utilities,’ he says.
‘Cellular was perceived as an obvious choice for the GB smart meter rollout due to the existing infrastructure. However, it has been shown to struggle to penetrate hard to reach locations such as basements or cupboards where meters are typically located. Given the success of the rollout is heavily dependent on whether consumers get behind it, it’s vital meters work first time.’
He continues: ‘Utility companies already need to go into millions of homes to install the units and it would be logistically catastrophic if they were required to go back and repair the connection. Let alone the reputational damage that utilities face if consumers don’t have a good experience using the meters.’
Hard to reach
Trials have demonstrated that SmartReach’s approach will address standard situations effectively, claims Green. ‘As part of our trial with ScottishPower late last year, we were able to connect over 99% of meters in the trial areas with a single installation visit to each home,’ points our Green.
‘This was achieved before network optimisation by SmartReach, which would further increase connection rates, and without the use of so-called infill or any other special communications solutions. This trial purposely targeted meters in hard to reach locations, an important test given that alternative communications solutions may struggle to connect up to 20% of meters, which could impact over five million homes when GB-wide rollout gets underway.’
Smart meters themselves are expected to generate fairly low levels of data, so the capacity issue is less acute than the coverage challenge. ‘Smart meters have a relatively low volume of data communications compared with, say, the information that people send and receive daily through mobile devices,’ adds Green.
‘However, the volume of data will vary over time and it is important that the communications network used for smart metering has available capacity at the time it is needed, without any conflict or contention with competing demands. It is inherently easier for a dedicated network, specifically designed to meet the needs of smart metering and grids, to ensure that capacity is available when it is needed.’
DECC is expected to award the SMIP communication service provider contracts in June.