Andy Slater of utility infrastructure systems provider, Sensus, looks at the current phase of the UK’s smart metering roll-out and considers the factors that are going to shape the country’s smart grid in the future.

The UK’s move towards the smart grid and smart metering is set to transform the way the country consumes energy. The roll-out of smart meters is gathering pace and will enable consumers to make informed choices about reducing their energy use to lower their bills and reduce the country’s carbon emissions. However, there are still questions regarding the network solution behind the smart meter roll-out that need answering.

The roll-out involves potentially 27 million UK homes at a cost of around £9bn and while government is looking to accelerate the roll-out, it’s clear that the network of choice will play a vital role in the success of smart meters. Currently, it’s assumed that all UK homes will connect to the network but the reality is that connecting electricity and gas meters is harder for some proposed solutions than others, as meters live under stairs, in basements and behind cupboards.

Communication issues

The government and industry are currently evaluating which communication network would be best suited for the UK roll-out – the two most debated options are cellular and long range radio. British Gas was one of the first to announce its trial of smart meters, using cellular technology in early 2010. However, more recently, the Smart Reach partnership was announced with BT, Arqiva, Detica and Sensus, looking to offer a dedicated and secure long range radio communications solution.

Cellular provider Vodafone has estimated that only 70% of UK homes have cellular coverage to their meter cupboard. This is due to cellular signals not penetrating buildings where meters are actually located. Therefore, if cellular was to be chosen as the network solution of choice, what would happen to the 30% of homes (nine million) that don’t connect?

Success in the US

Long range radio is a new technology here in Europe, but it has a proven track record in the US for smart meter and grid networks because it was designed from the outset for smart metering and grid applications. It offers universal coverage, and secure and dedicated communications for what Sensus believe is part of the UK’s critical infrastructure – like the TETRA radio system is for the emergency services. Experience in the US has shown it to have a first time connection rate to meters greater than 95% within coverage areas, ensuring a minimal number of homes are left unconnected.

The next step

With the DECC and Ofgem Prospectus response deadline passing on 28th October last year, the UK has entered into a significant phase of the roll-out where the industry has had the opportunity to advise the government on how to ensure the smart meter programme is a success.

Whichever communication network is selected by the government, it must be the one that offers the best quality of service, is cost efficient to deploy, and is effective in helping reduce the UK’s carbon footprint. If a network is selected which does not perform, any environmental or financial savings could be lost, customer confidence undermined, and additional costs experienced. Therefore, the government must consider all networking options for the UK roll-out before committing to a network.

Which solution suits the UK’s smart meter requirements best?

Sensus believe that some of the key attributes of a smart meter network are:

  • Availability – Public networks like cellular can have a high level of network availability but because they are used by the consumer market, performance can be affected by network congestion at peak times. To avoid this issue, the smart meter communication network needs to be dedicated and designed specifically for utilities.
  • Survivability – Smart meter networks will need the ability to continue to deliver a service even in the presence of a failure or accident. Private networks can achieve a high degree of survivability but public network technologies often lack back-up power for anything more than a few minutes and therefore, can become unserviceable after quite short periods of power interruption and can remain unavailable until power has been restored.
  • Coverage – The diversity of utility environments and the mix of urban and rural areas means achieving a high first time connection rate for meters with some technologies can be difficult. This could be detrimental to the effectiveness of the roll-out and result in smart meters not being available to all, resulting in additional engineering costs and visits, and damage to customer confidence.
  • Security – The protection of sensitive data and the control of access to critical systems is key to the success of the roll-out but problematic when the network is not secure and dedicated. The more diverse the technology, the greater the number of suppliers, and the more public a network is, the harder it becomes to secure it adequately.