BY HEATHER JOHNSTONE

As the new coalition government seeks to accelerate the deployment of smart meters in the UK, can long-range radio provide the necessary communications solution to make the roll-out a success?

Global investments in smart grids will approach $46 million by 2015. This is the main finding of a recent study conducted by NextGen, ABI Research’s emerging technologies research incubator.

In recent years the groundwork for smart grids has been laid in a number of countries, but what is changing is the pace of both investment and implementation says the report. According to the study, transmission and distribution infrastructure investments will take the major share of smart grid investments through to 2015. On a cumulative basis, a total of $41 billion will be invested globally, with spending focused on grid automation and control, distribution automation, distributed generation and demand response programmes.

Long-range radio could be the communications system of choice for smart meters throughout the UK Source: Arqiva

Interestingly, the study also looked at the outlook for smart meter installations up to 2015, and forecast that globally $4.8 billion would be spent on purchasing and installing smart meters.

Last year, the European Parliament voted to roll-out smart meters in every building across the continent by 2022, and set an 80 per cent installation target for 2020. Several European countries, however, are already ahead of the curve, led by Italy. Between 2000 and 2005, Enel, the country’s dominant utility, embarked on the largest smart meter deployment, representing in excess of 27 million customers.

One country that has been relatively slow off the blocks but has ambitions to catch-up is the UK. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC), under the former government, announced plans last year to have every home and small and medium non-domestic site in the country equipped with a smart meter by 2020, equating to
47 million gas and electricity smart meters in
26 million properties.

Some industry players feared that the new coalition government, with its drive to cut spending and reduce the UK’s deficit, would not see this proposed smart meter roll-out as a priority. However, to the contrary, the new government has made it clear it wishes to accelerate the deployment. At the end of July, it launched a consultation on the faster roll-out of smart domestic meters.

One of the fundamentals of any smart grid is the ability to have advanced two-way communication, so one of the key issues raised for discussion in the consultation document is the establishment of central communications and data services.

GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) has long been seen as the only option for smart meter communications in the UK, not because it is the best but because it appears to be the only viable solution currently available. However, GPRS has some significant limitations, including: the general purpose nature of the networks – utilities would not have exclusive use and the network’s reach – with the majority of domestic meters located either indoors (under the stairs or in cellars) or in boundary boxes within a footpath – they may not be able to connect to the GRPS network.

But there is an alternative. It is long-range radio, a smart metering communication protocol that has already proved successful in both the US and Canada. Communication services specialist Arqiva is championing this communications network technology, and is proposing the creation a centralized and dedicated, utility-grade two-way communications system, based on long-range radio.

Theoretically, long-range radio makes a compelling case to be the long-term communications protocol for UK smart metering.

Arqiva owns the 400 MHz band of the UK spectrum, and this relatively low frequency means that signals carry further, and will better communicate with meters situated indoors or buried underground. Furthermore, because the network is private, a single software upgrade or a time-sensitive pricing signal can be broadcast by a utility to all meters on the network in one go.

Backed by funding from DECC, the network will be put to the test in its first large-scale trial this year. Arqiva is working with Detica on data privacy and network security and with smart grid specialist Sensus. Last month communications behemoth BT also lent its weight to the project.

The UK’s smart meter consultation process is due to end on 28 October, with the expectation that a decision on the time-frame and implementation of the smart meter roll-out will be announced in the final quarter of this year. 

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