By Lorenzo Amicucci, Business Development Manager, Nordic Semiconductor
An average family on an average street in the U.S. is spending approximately $2200 every year on their utility bills, according to the country’s Energy Information Administration (EIA). For those people in the lowest income quintile this can represent more than 20 percent of their annual income, and more than their annual spend on basics like groceries and healthcare.
You would think then that reducing power bills was high up on the list of priorities for every consumer, and in turn behind the predicted growth in smart meter adoption that according to analyst Navigant Research will see smart meters installed in six-out-of-ten homes worldwide by 2028. However, market growth is in fact being driven by the utility companies themselves, as they continue to invest in grid intelligence, security and edge computing technologies that will improve their operational efficiencies and reduce costs.
For the utilities the benefits of connected tech are well understood. It enables them to eliminate manual meter reading, accurately bill their customers, initiate dynamic pricing, monitor grid losses and optimize grid performance for maximum profit potential (see how U.S. engineering and product design agency, Apricity, is helping power companies avoid having to fire up auxiliary power stations).
The OneMeter Beacon is a commercial device that provides companies with the ability to monitor and manage their energy usage data in real time
But if growth predictions for smart meters are to be fully realized three things need to happen: First the industry will need to settle on the most effective connectivity solution between both utility and meter, and meter and consumer; second the utility will need to understand how best to manage and act upon the vast quantity of data smart meters will generate; and last but not least, consumers will need to become invested in the technology.
Connectivity made easy
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. Cellular IoT is backed by 3GPP and so many companies it amounts to a future-proofed standardized technology that offers plug and play simplicity, security, and a relatively quick roll-out. Compared to earlier generations (e.g. 2G), cellular IoT also brings new features for reducing power consumption and enabling new use cases for smart meters. Finally, utilities and governments can rely on a solid wireless technology designed for large scale IoT deployments: they don’t need to think about writing specifications for connecting meters, but can rather rely on a ready-made solution then focus on other aspects of their network.
For meter-to-consumer connectivity no single protocol dominates, with Wi-Fi, cellular, Thread, Zigbee, and Bluetooth LE solutions all touted. Bluetooth LE is a prime candidate because every smartphone has it, so it is straightforward to connect a user to their meter. The smartphone link promises more than just the ability for the consumer to read their meter; in instances of pre-paid meters, Bluetooth LE could enable the user to ‘top up’ their meter from their smartphone, or the smartphone could act as the gateway between the meter and other smart home sensors, switches or actuators. For example, users could trigger a power-hungry home appliances to operate only when the electricity tariff is off peak.
Connectivity is in fact the simple part. The challenge for utilities is not so much collecting the data, but how to analyze and monetize it. The amount of data generated by connected IoT devices is forecast to grow to 79.4 zettabytes (ZB) by 2025. One ZB is approximately equal to a trillion Gigabytes (GB).
While it is still an emerging field, making sense of all this data with Artificial Intelligence (AI)—using machine and ‘deep’ learning to perform advanced analysis/demand response tasks—will ultimately keep the grid performing at optimal efficiency—avoiding unnecessary costs, and blackouts.
The third requirement for smart metering to meet its projected growth trajectory is user engagement. To date this has been a stumbling block because consumers have been indifferent to opt-in programs, while utilities are in equal measure reluctant to share consumption data with their customers where they haven’t been legislated to do so. Currently the relationship between utility and customer begins and ends at the meter, but there are good reasons for both parties to embrace a more symbiotic relationship.
Research shows the average household can reduce their energy consumption by 10 percent if given the data to do so via smart meter ‘live’ feedback. Based on EIA research that equates to a not insignificant $220 every year. Utilities of course are less interested in saving their customers money, but giving consumers the power to manage their own energy consumption can be good for the utility companies too.
In sustained periods of peak demand, for example a hot day when everyone turns on their air conditioners, the electricity company has a problem. Give consumers the ability to respond to their own usage based on live pricing and some will moderate their usage, and the grid will perform better as a whole.
How advanced is smart metering? It needs more mature technology and in some countries the cellular network coverage is not yet ready for the new generation of smart meters. However, with the utilities pushing hard for it, mobile network operators are responding by investing in networks, which in turn is leading to further utility investment in smart meters. At the speed it’s moving we are perhaps only a few months away from it really taking off.