The cost of electricity in the U.S. has risen more than 50 percent in the last 30 years, while household income has not. According to Statista, household income has barely managed 15 percent growth in the same period, and on the graph of power prices versus wage growth, the two lines have been diverging for most of our lifetimes. They continue to do so.
In the hierarchy of unwelcome bills, behind housing and transportation, utility bills are the next biggest drain on household funds, surpassing groceries, insurance and even healthcare. The reason for spiraling power costs are complex. Finite natural resources, vast wastage throughout the supply chain and demand all play a part, but can the rollout of smart meters—that according to Navigant Research will be installed in six out of ten houses by 2028—turn the tide on our energy use and its drain on the family budget?
An old new tech
Smart meters aren’t new. In 1972 a Boeing engineer developed a sensor monitoring system using digital transmission that offered meter reading capabilities. This was the forerunner to today’s devices that provide intelligent, wirelessly enabled measurement and control of electricity, gas and water use. In comparison, their analog predecessors dumbly measured data for a meter reader to record in person by attending onsite.
Demand for smart meters initially advanced faster than the technology itself, with governments scrambling to legislate for introduction before the technology had matured. Early connectivity solutions such as PLC and M BUS had their limitations, but now we are at a tipping point. Cellular IoT—a LPWAN technology supported by two versions, LTE-M and NB-IoT—now presents an ideal solution for meter connectivity to the Cloud, while Bluetooth LE offers a consumer friendly, smartphone compatible link between the homeowner and their power consumption data.
“For Cloud connectivity from the meter to the utility, cellular IoT is the best solution because it brings simplicity, security, and speeds up the rollout,” says Lorenzo Amicucci, a Business Development Manager with wireless chipmaker Nordic Semiconductor. “A lot of companies have been trying to find proprietary solutions to connect meters, but with cellular you have a solution backed by a lot of companies so it’s a future proofed and standardized tech.
“Bluetooth LE is useful for installation and commissioning, and of course if the user wants to connect to the meter, every smartphone has it built in. In some markets there are prepaid meters and Bluetooth LE could be used to recharge the meter, or you can use it to connect the meter to other sensors or switches. Bluetooth LE is getting more popular for smart metering for the human interaction element.”
Wireless solutions that provide a simple and manageable means for utility companies and their customers to access and action their power consumption data is in theory a ‘win-win’ for both parties, but it is not yet a marriage of equals, and the power companies are the ones driving smart meter adoption.
Utilities want connected meters because they want to be able to accurately bill their customers, they want to know in ‘real time’ how much each household is using and that consumers are paying for their energy rather than stealing it. The data can also be used to perform advanced analysis and demand response modeling to ensure the grid is performing to its peak and optimized for full profit potential. What power companies care less about is that customers have access to the same data. “It’s governments that want utilities to share the data with their users, not the utilities themselves,” says Amicucci.
While the profit motive makes power companies unconcerned about providing their customers with the tools to moderate their energy use, or schedule it around offpeak pricing, the benefits for the customer are obvious. “Sharing the data with the consumer gives them a choice,” explains Amicucci. “It enables them to decide when’s it’s the best time to charge the car or use the washing machine. Consumers can now connect to the meter and know how much power they are using every minute.
“Giving consumers the power to manage their own energy consumption can be good for the utility companies too. In a period of peak demand, if everybody turns everything on at the same time the electricity company has a problem. But if consumers have the ability to respond to their own usage based on live pricing some will back away when the cost surges at times of high demand, and the grid will perform better as a whole.”
Smart metering in its true sense—beyond ‘basic’ connectivity to data collection, analysis and ‘live’ feedback—is still a developing sector, but there are solutions serving both utilities and their customers that are already delivering on this promise. In 2018, Polish IIoT startup, OneMeter, launched its OneMeter Beacon, a device that allows users to monitor and manage their real time energy usage. Originally designed for use in industrial and commercial environments, the solution is now available for the domestic market. It works by simply plugging the device in to an existing electronic electricity meter via an optical port interface - enabling the beacon to receive energy usage data from the meter using the IEC 62056-21/IEC 1107 protocol.
Once installed, the beacon is paired to a smartphone or tablet using Nordic Bluetooth LE wireless connectivity and allows the user to review the data including active and reactive energy consumption parameters, as well as daily, weekly, and monthly energy usage charts. Companies can perform accurate energy usage cost estimation and avoid penalties for exceeding contracted power by defining power parameter alerts. Certified measurement data can also be shared with energy vendors enabling invoices to be settled based on actual usage instead of forecasts.
The OneMeter Beacon is a commercial device that provides companies with the ability to monitor and manage their energy usage data in real time
Only the beginning
The next step for smart meters, Amicucci believes, will be for them to move beyond standalone devices, to part of the broader smart home ecosystem. In Norway, for example, you can already buy a device that attaches to a smart meter that can connect over the Internet to an electric vehicle charger, and in turn make smart decisions about the most economical time to charge the car.
“How we connect the smart meter to other objects in the house and for what benefit is the next step,” says Amicucci. “The key question is which protocol will be used. The market for the protocol that’s chosen will be huge.”