As the UK embarks on a nationwide smart metering programme, Mark England of Sentec looks at the complexities of the roll-out and the lessons to be learned from countries that have already gone through the process. 

Mark England, Managing Director of Sentec

 

Mark England, Sentec, UK

Preparations for the UK smart meter roll-out are shaping up well in many areas, with encouraging progress in fields such as meter standards and the high level architecture of the overall system. As the nation moves towards the development of a national smart grid, British Gas announced in March it is doubling the scope of its smart meter rollout programme, with a new target to install smart meters in two million homes by 2012.

The company is now gearing up to beat the government’s 2020 target for a full roll-out by beginning its programme immediately, creating 2600 new jobs in the process. Significantly, the company has also said that it plans to share the technical standards that support the rollout in a bid to create added momentum behind the nationwide smart metering plan.

These are very positive signs of progress and a strong indication that utility companies are throwing their weight behind the roll-out, recognizing the huge potential of smart meters in helping the UK meet its carbon-reduction targets and creating cost savings for their customers.

However, a number of crucial areas still need to be addressed before 2012 if the roll-out is to be a smooth one. In theory, the UK should be starting from a position of strength, given that it can tailor its approach based on the experiences of the other countries that have already implemented smart metering programmes.

A number of other EU countries are also considering their own roll-outs in the next decade including Spain, France, Ireland, and Portugal, but perhaps one of the most salutary lessons from other roll-outs is that a significant obstacle has been consumer resistance, a barrier that should not be underestimated by the UK government. 

CONSUMER RESISTANCE 

In the US, for example, several utilities have experienced vociferous resistance from their customers, with PG&E facing a lawsuit from customers in the Bakersfield area who believe their smart meters are overcharging them after seeing substantial rises in their bills once the meters have been installed. Similarly, in the Netherlands, the detailed plans for smart meter installation have been put on ice due to concerns over the security and privacy of smart metering data and how they would affect consumers if the proposed compulsory roll-out was put in place.

The Dutch regulator and DNOs have since gone back to the drawing board and are now planning a large scale and voluntary roll-out starting in 2013, after several years of pilots. In Italy, Enel ran up against a more technical stumbling block as it found that its first-generation smart meters, developed to support time-of-use pricing and fraud detection, now need upgrading for more sophisticated functions.

So how are these experiences likely to play out in the UK? The universal nature of the smart meter roll-out makes it a very sensitive issue for consumers, and the government and energy industry will need to tackle this with a clear communication and engagement strategy that includes fall-back positions for dealing with consumers who are not willing to participate. Historically, this sort of persuasive communication has not been a strength of the energy industry, but this is a nettle that must be grasped sooner rather than later.

Building public confidence in the roll-out will be critical to its success, with an emphasis on reassuring customers that the data received and transmitted by smart meters is as secure as possible. Technical system security to safeguard data collected by smart meters must cover all stages of the process, from individual meters to the central communications provider to back office systems.

This must involve a strong focus on encryption techniques, such as those used to protect secure applications like online banking. 

DATA PROTECTION PROBLEMS 

But the real challenge is in ensuring that customer data is used only for the purposes for which it was intended, in compliance with the UK Data Protection Act and the European Data Protection Framework. Guaranteeing private data is used only for functions that consumers have agreed to creates an extra area of liability in the overall system, which increases the risk of disputes.

There are many issues to be addressed before a EU-wide smart meter roll-out can be successful

But more challenging still could be the process of establishing customers’ wishes in the first place, since this will require the industry to explain complex functions to customers who may have no wish to interact with a smart metering system at all.

Some of the potential problems are more logistical in nature. One notable issue is the effect of the meter’s location on coverage. The building construction type and tenancy arrangements affect the appropriate communications solution, meaning that the roll-out will have to allow for a variety of solutions. The manner in which the roll-out is implemented will also be key.

An area-by-area roll-out has many advantages in reducing costs and timescales, improving customer participation and facilitating appropriate technical solutions. But it will also require an unprecedented degree of co-ordination between different suppliers – something that may need to be mandated by government. Extra strain is placed on the co-ordination of this procedure when a gas meter roll-out is also factored in.

Gas meter products that can communicate directly with the network and sustain a reasonable battery lifecycle are rare and so are consequently thought of as subsidiary to electricity meter roll outs.

Instead of solving this problem by allowing them to piggyback on an electricity meter’s network connection, another answer is to develop a stand-alone gas meter, something which could easily be accomplished within the timeframe of the roll-out. This means that care must be taken in order to avoid planning for only joint gas and electricity rollouts, as this may not be the best option for the consumer.

At present there is a notable gap with no coherent industry processes for handling the smart metering data flows needed when, for example, a customer switches supplier or when a new meter is installed. The multiple uses of smart metering data already include information on meter settings, prepayment details and meter statistics, but smart metering allows data on energy supply and demand, security coding and communications status to be added, increasing the complexity of the system.

Many of these items will require updating infrequently, so it is possible to envisage business-as-usual during the period of smart meter roll-out; nevertheless, in the long term, processes will need to evolve to support the extra data needs of new participants with new applications. 

NEED FOR TECHNICAL STANDARDS 

Another significant area that has yet to be properly addressed is the complete set of technical standards needed to underpin the success of the roll-out. SRSM is the base-level standard for smart meters, although its effect on some legacy smart meters remains unclear and it applies only up to the meter interface. This leaves some decisions to be made on the communications infrastructure behind smart metering.

There are a number of network options and it is common for meter roll-outs to include the communications infrastructure as well as the meters themselves, so it’s important that standards that might guide these decisions are fixed in the early stages of the planning process.

As no single communication solution will cover all situations the eventual LAN/WAN result is likely to be a patchwork of options, decided by the central communications provider.

The SRSM standards committees are considering options both for the HAN/LAN (including licensed and unlicensed radio, ZigBee, Wavenis and low energy Bluetooth) within the house and the WAN bringing the data back to the central communications interface. Many industry insiders believe that the solution lies in flexible, light standards which specify interfaces but allow providers to adopt the best solutions between the interfaces. For WAN, architectures may include GSM, PLC, ADSL, WiMAX, whilst broadband is not considered a contender for moving meter data.

Finally, timing may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The UK is working to a ten-year plan for its roll-out, which includes another two years of preparation and a detailed implementation programme to be published in 2012. But pessimists are already pointing to the government’s track record of missing vital milestones and delaying projects by lengthy consultations.

There is still time for the UK to hit its targets, but it is imperative that the next rounds of planning run to time, in order to finalise the detailed implementation programme by 2012. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Mark England is managing director at Sentec, which serves the smart metering industry. 

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