It's time for smarter 'smart' meters: Future-proofing utility meter rollouts
New energy technologies, coupled with growing consumer interest in home energy usage, call for more intelligent metering systems to better integrate utility and consumer services.
The following is a viewpoint by Mike Phillips, CEO and co-founder of Sense, a home energy monitor company.
In the last decade, utilities have invested in and rolled out millions of “smart” meters (AMI and AMR) for consumers. These meters met some of their intended goals, including reducing truck rolls and providing a degree of grid analytics, but did little to benefit end customers. In hindsight, this is not surprising — the consumer marketplace moves at a much faster pace than the lifespan of utility meter deployments.
What’s more, consumer trends are accelerating. Consumers’ investment in solar, EVs and smart home technology is spurring increased interest in energy. These new technologies will affect how energy is used and controlled in the home, and are being adopted much faster than many predicted. Utility metering technology designed over a decade ago has not kept up.
The more widespread adoption of new energy technologies coupled with increased consumer interest in energy usage requires new approaches to home energy management. Current utility metering systems don’t allow either utilities or consumers to benefit from making more intelligent decisions about how and when energy is consumed. In particular, the boundary between meters and behind-the-meter solutions is a barrier to true integration of utility and consumer services.
The solution is to make future energy systems which are more flexible and driven at their core by software and intelligence. Metering platforms in particular should have high resolution sampling, real-time and low-latency networking, and should allow secure and robust utility services to coexist with an open environment for running a future mix of consumer services and applications.
Meters are about to make the kind of transition that cell phones did a decade ago
While this may sound ambitious, we can learn from a similar transition that happened in the telecom industry. In 2005, cellular phone providers fully specified the hardware and software in phones connected to their networks, just as utilities do with meters today. Cellular phone providers shared many of the same concerns as utilities: in addition to providing core telco services (phone calls, messaging, emergency services and billing), they also needed to ensure security and reliability (phones are connected to cell towers, and rogue software could threaten the operation of the cell tower itself). But by 2007, cell phones had evolved to become today’s smart phones with the ability to provide both core telco services as well as third-party consumer-facing software (apps) all within a restricted and secure hardware environment.
Imagine applying a similar approach to utility meters, creating a competitive market for energy-related consumer apps that integrate with future utility programs. This new metering platform could be provided through upgrades to utility-owned meters or through consumer-owned hardware. Just as phones were once owned by the telecoms carrier, but today are owned or leased by end users, meters could undergo a similar transition.
Although consumers are not interested in meters, as they adopt more advanced energy technologies in their homes, the utility metering functionality could be built into those future systems (combined solar/storage, smart load centers). Utilities could offer such consumers discounts and access to programs that require this more advanced functionality, for example, automated real-time demand response programs.
The more likely path for most consumers will be that these more advanced metering services will be supported using the existing model of utility-owned metering, but with superior hardware, software and communications capabilities. This represents a significant leap compared to current AMI meters. However, since processing costs are plummeting, incremental hardware upgrades could be supplied at little or no additional cost.
New metering platform requirements
Regardless of the ownership model for the new metering platform, it will require open and upgradeable software and robust hardware to enable the development of a growing set of both utility services and consumer services. The hardware capabilities should include:
High sampling rates: Sampling power at very high rates (commercially available solutions measure power at up to 1MHz), will support:
- Real-time load disaggregation: Different devices in a home use power differently. By sampling at very high frequencies, it is possible to build a library of device signatures that can then be detected in real-time in homes. This real-time view of device activity can be used to improve energy efficiency, provide more holistic demand response, and build consumer trust and engagement.
- Fault detection: a number of device and system failures show up in homes’ electrical signals. High resolution metering allows very detailed views of the operation of an appliance’s components that can be used to detect and diagnose faults.
- Detailed grid analytics: By measuring not only voltage and power factor, but also the detailed voltage waveform (up to very high harmonics), it is possible to collect a wide range of grid performance metrics and detect grid faults quickly and cost effectively.
Real-time, low latency networking: The deployment of engaging consumer-facing applications depends on networking infrastructure that allows real-time, low-latency (< 0.5 seconds) communication from edge devices to centralized applications and back to consumer-facing mobile and web applications. This low-latency networking is also key as the need for real-time load control (automated real-time demand response) increases with rising penetration of distributed intermittent power sources.
Hardware support for security: Protection from cyber threats is an increasingly important concern for the grid. It becomes even more critical as platforms handle a wide-range of consumer services that interact with the grid. Both the integrity of the grid and consumer data privacy must be maintained. Software can provide the right boundaries and flexibility, but hardware support is needed to secure these boundaries against cyber threats.
Utilities that have already deployed AMI may be reluctant to invest in the additional requirements to support the new metering platform. In the short term, they may find it easier to make use of behind-the-meter consumer hardware. This won’t achieve the cost savings of a single hardware platform that integrates both utility and consumer services. But it allows utilities to benefit from consumer engagement, energy efficiency, real-time demand response and detailed grid analytics.
For utilities planning AMI deployments meant to last upwards of two decades, we urge them to resist new rollouts of rigid metering infrastructure. Consumers are adopting more intelligent and flexible energy systems, and utilities will have to adapt to this reality. Consider the possibilities of a new metering platform before embarking on a rollout. Deploying old rigid infrastructure meant to last 15 or 20 years into the future seems like a risky bet.
Mike Phillips is the CEO and co-founder of Sense, a home energy management company.