Tackling security issues in the smart metering rollout

Issues such as data security and technological education will be key in the accelerating rollout of smart meters, says Mukul Gupta, VP and head of Europe for Energy, Utilities and Services business for Infosys, which aims to become the leading systems integrator for smart metering projects.

Smart metering, although intended to cut households’ bills while averting carbon emissions, has met widespread popular opposition and even alarmed many within the power industry over its potential threat to data security. A wide range of approaches and technologies are also being applied in the many jurisdictions where smart meters are now being deployed, raising questions over the ideal solutions in areas such as how data are transmitted.

As global smart meter rollouts speed up, utilities can turn to system integrators to avoid such hurdles and realise substantial benefits for themselves and their customers, argues Mukul Gupta, who is an active speaker and panellist at global smart meter forums.

PEi: What smart meter projects is Infosys currently engaged in? What are the key markets?

Gupta: We are currently seeing a strong uptake of smart meters in Western Europe and the US; these are the primary markets that we’re working with utilities in.

Currently, we are engaged with close to ten utilities across geographies helping clients at different stages of their smart metering programmes. For instance, we are working with a large utility in Southern California on an end-to-end Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) implementation where we have been involved from the discovery phase through to the implementation stage. We are also working on other projects in Europe, Australia and Canada.

Some of our customers also include smaller utility companies, for which we have implemented smart metering and meter data management systems where we carry out tasks related to business process engineering and organisational change management. In Sweden, we have worked with a utility to integrate data collection and processing with its other systems. We’ve also recently completed a smart initiative for one of the UK’s largest utility retailers, implementing mobile devices and AMI systems.

PEi: What are your key current technical and business goals?

Gupta: Our aim is to use our expertise to become known as the leading systems integrator (SI) for smart meter projects. We believe that our experience and knowledge of the industry makes us the partner of choice for leading vendors; as we are able to combine our strong engineering expertise with business and industry knowledge, making us well-placed to ensure that the technology used is aligned with an organisation’s business goals. We are continuously building on our extensive knowledge of AMI and are able to ensure effective system integration by harnessing strong alliances with leading industry partners to deliver value across the board. In addition, we are working to develop innovative solutions, tools and accelerators that enable our clients to deploy smart metering systems at an optimum cost and within reduced timelines.

PEi: How is Infosys working to ensure that smart meters prompt changes in consumer behaviour and provide substantial advantages to utilities?

Gupta: As a provider of system integration services for Smart Grids, Infosys is focused on managing and improving the customer experience, while exceeding the expectations of utility companies. The development of the Smart Grid has been rigorously phased and we provide solutions that allow utilities to provide end-to-end services to consumer, whilst creating integrated visibility across the utility value chain.

This can be done through applications such as the Infosys Smart Customer Web Portal, a solution that helps customers manage energy usage by informing them when energy costs are at their lowest. This means that they can switch energy devices such as their dishwashers on at non-peak hours, thus reducing their energy bill.

We also work with some customers and utilities to share best practice. For example, we show customers how others have managed to lower energy bills through the implementation of smart meters and AMI systems, and have found this to be a great education process. Utility companies are also shown the substantial benefits that can be delivered by smart technologies such as the Infosys Smart Customer Portal, as it has the ability to reduce cost of service and improve customer satisfaction through an always-on service.

PEi: A report by Pike Research concluded that “it would be naàƒ¯ve to think that smart meters will not be successfully attacked. They will be”. Is this a fair assessment of an inevitable security risk?

Gupta: As with any connected device that transmits and receives sensitive and personal data, there can be issues around security, whether these come from recreational hacking, criminality or even state-level cyber attacks. However, smart meter security is evolving and we are seeing a lot of development in this area. Utility companies are taking rigorous and systematic steps towards managing and securing customer data and by applying data encryption and other security measures, breaches are less likely to take place. So while there may be issues related to security, we will see vast amounts of development in the area. We believe that customers can already be confident that personal data are secure in smart meters.

PEi: Is there any solid evidence that smart meter technology has already led to breaches of privacy or inaccurate billing?

Gupta: There have not been any well publicised accounts of metering hacking to roll-back billing, but there have been some reports around the inaccuracy of smart meters. Unfortunately, this is a result of wild speculation. After testing meters for accuracy in some states within the US, 99.96 per cent of the meters tested were within 2 per cent accuracy. Replacing a mechanical meter, which may have been in the field for up to 30 years, with an accurate device is what has lead to many of the false reports.

To put minds at ease around privacy and inaccurate billing, utility companies should carry out an initial privacy impact assessment before deploying the Smart Grid. This assessment should be undertaken regularly following significant organisational, applications or systems changes.

An Itron OpenWay smart meter Source: Itron

PEi: What are the main threats to overcome: recreational hacking, criminality or even state-level cyber attacks?

Gupta: All of the above must be overcome. We are vulnerable to each of these types of attacks as a result of the Stuxnet (the computer worm discovered in 2010). Recreational hackers will always hack for the sake of proving it can be done. From a criminality perspective, there is the ever present data security concern, that smart meter data will be used to target burglaries. In addition, there is the threat of malicious attacks to operations. This could be a result of criminal behaviour or state-level cyber attack.

PEi: What are smart meters’ specific inherent vulnerabilities?

Gupta: This can be thought of from a device and network perspective. The smart meter device itself is vulnerable to security threats and this is secured by the hardware manufacturer. The network lies in two realms, the utility network and the home network. The utility network is dependent upon the network model. Many utilities are using their own telecommunications back-end and it is dependent upon the security of their own mesh communications network or other type of network. A growing number of utilities are choosing both private and independent wireless communication networks. As the technology shift turns to homes, there must be focused security around home area networks, smart appliances and the home as a whole.

Another vulnerability commonly associated with smart meters is the amount of data created by them. However, this can be easily overcome by implementing a meter data management application which can manage vast quantities of data, ensuring that the utility is delivered with the right intelligence. It does this by transporting the data, validating, cleansing and then processing.

PEi: How is Infosys contributing to the development of standards to enhance the security of smart meters?

Gupta: We are part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) which has a Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, as well as the Common Information Model (CIM) Users Group. Both groups attract leaders in the field of smart grids who aim to set up standards for the industry. We’ve made positive progress, particularly on the development side, for example, we are coming up with standards for protocols used in Smart Grid communication ” these developments will be finalised soon. Infosys also participated in the Consortium on Digital Energy, an UK based initiative organised by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which included representatives from bodies such as Ofgem.

PEi: Are significantly different approaches to rolling out smart meters being taken in various jurisdictions?

Gupta: The general approaches in countries are the same, but the issues surrounding rollouts are different. In North America there has been some debate around security and privacy, but consumers are given the choice if they want to have smart meters installed. In Europe it is slightly different because energy efficiency targets have been put in place, which means countries have to have a timeline in place for smart meter rollouts.

Despite this however, we have seen a number of different approaches adopted in Europe. For example, we are seeing smart meter uptake more in Western Europe than Eastern Europe. This is partially due to Western Europe being regulation-driven. For example, Italy and Sweden were the first countries to complete smart meter rollouts in 2005 and 2009 respectively, where UK and France have set targets for full penetration over the next few years. This is also the case in the Netherlands, where according to Berg Insight’s 8th edition of Smart Metering in Europe; the plans to introduce smart meters were delayed as they met strong opposition as consumers perceived it as an invasion of privacy.

PEi: What lessons can be learned from smart meter programmes in various countries? Which provide examples of successes to repeat or errors to avoid?

Gupta: We have seen large utility companies use a third party systems integrator (SI) to deploy smart meters projects. However, some utilities are not following this practice which has resulted in faulty installations. Therefore, utilities are advised to use a SI to manage smart meter programmes in order for faults to be addressed, and inaccuracies in billing to be avoided.

Another lesson learnt is in relations to communications within utility companies that have broad geographical areas to cover. Network communication is not always full-proof and there are issues in getting the data from the meter. Some utility companies are facing challenges in mitigating these issues, but a number of vendors are innovating new technologies that help overcome this.

Utilities should also adopt a phased approach for rollouts starting with pilots that cover minimum technology and business objectives. Results of such pilots can be leveraged to plan for full rollouts.

Additionally, there is a need for a strong internal change programme, including training, to ensure the move to smart metering is understood by the whole company, along with a well thought out external customer communication strategy, to help ensure adoption and uptake by the end user.

PEi: How well do US regulations provide a guide for the rollout of smart meters in the UK and Europe?

Gupta: The regulations in the US are vastly different from those in the UK and other parts of Europe, which makes it difficult to compare the two regions. There are also differences in processes carried out by the US and European markets, which means some of the benefits delivered by smart meters address different problems faced.

For example, utility retailers in the US collect meter reads from customer homes on a monthly basis, whereas in the UK this is often done quarterly. Therefore, the rollout of smart meters will mean a lot more time will be saved by field crews in US. But all in all, all countries will be able to see costs cut as field crews will not need to conduct manual meter readings anymore and accurate billing will deliver huge advantages for both consumers and utilities.

PEi: In your view, what standards need to be put in place to govern the collection and use of data from Smart Grids? What processes are needed to develop these standards?

Gupta: Interoperability standards are needed in order for there to be a common structure in getting information from different products. In addition, there is a huge need to have security standards as these will put minds at ease about security and ensure the right security controls are in place to protect smart meter data. It is also important that we see increased collaboration between utility retailers, providers, SIs and vendors so standards are put in place sooner. Forums such as the NIST Smart Grid Interoperability Panel are steps in the right direction and will help to make this possible. We are also seeing similar initiatives being taken up by the Department of Energy and Climate Change now.

PEi: How can companies ensure that the systems they implement will prompt changes in consumer behaviour, as well as enable utilities to improve their operations?

Gupta: The key is effective customer communications. Utility retailers need to ensure that customers are being educated about the full benefits delivered by smart meters ” this is the only way that consumer adoption will be increased and customers will know what features they can use and advantages can be delivered.

It is also the responsibility of technology vendors and SIs to educate utility companies about the full functionalities delivered by smart meters. It is fair to say that due to the technology being fairly new, a lot of these benefits are still being realised however, there are multiple advantages apart from the monitoring energy use which can be realised by having the right technology applications in place. Online usage analysis, access to benchmark data and social media are broad technology areas that can be implemented to provide better benefits to customers.

PEi: From your experience, how well do utilities appreciate their potential benefits from smart meter technology?

Gupta: There is a good level of understanding amongst utility retailers when it comes to smart meter benefits. But technology vendors and SIs play a crucial role in educating the industry about the wider benefits that can be delivered by the smart grid.

For example, the Smart Grid plays a critical role in the rollout of e-mobility platforms which support electric vehicles projects. An e-mobility platform, based on the Smart Grid, can enable consumers to choose which utility retailer they want to buy electricity from at charging stations and also allows utility retailers to offer customers with different pricing bundles.

Utilities should plan to address the potential benefits from smart metering in the following categories: Energy system delivery reliability, enhanced services to customers, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and reduced cost of energy generation.

PEi: How feasible or advisable is the pace of the planned rollout of smart meters in the UK ” which plans for 30 million meters by 2019 ” and across Europe?

Gupta: We believe that good traction has been made in meeting energy targets and rolling out smart meters. Infosys is currently working with one of the UK’s largest energy retailers in the roll out of five million smart meters over the next four to five years. We have also heard about British Gas’ plans to install two million smart meters in UK homes by the end of 2012, ahead of the 2014 mass rollout.

Good progress has also been made in other parts of Europe such as Portugal and Malta where nationwide rollouts are already taking place. Furthermore, a report by Berg Insight states that Sweden achieved 100 per cent penetration of smart meters by 2009, and other Nordic countries including Finland and Norway, will be introducing smart metering legislation by 2012.

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