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A smart grid needs connected smart meters

Smart meters are only smart meters if they can get the data they produce back to a central server for processing. If a smart meter can’t connect to the network, the utility will have to rely on the customer providing regular readings and dispatching meter readers. It will also be unable to receive any instructions and will only be able to passively measure energy use. A disconnected smart meter is just a dumb meter.

So when the Irish energy regulator, Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), decides on the infrastructure to support its National Smart Metering Programme, the network technology that will connect the meters will be of the utmost importance. 2.2million electricity and 600,000 gas smart meters will be installed in homes across the country, and as near to 100% as possible must be connected in order for the rollout to be considered effective.

There are several key requirements for the right smart meter communication technology. One of which is that it must be able to support multiple applications. Smart grid technology will continue to evolve and this evolution will require more data. The network must therefore have sufficient bandwidth to be future-proof. It must be secure in order to protect a vital piece of national infrastructure from malicious attacks. And it must also be standards-based and not proprietary – a network that will be around for decades rather than years needs to be simple to support the future.

But most importantly it needs to provide universal coverage. We’ve all experienced coverage that is not universal on a mobile phone, either in a rural area out of the reach of a cell tower, or in a ‘notspot’ – somewhere you would expect there to be mobile coverage but a gap exists. These gaps aren’t usually too problematic with a mobile phone. They’re expected in rural areas and in towns and cities all you usually have to do is walk a few steps until you pick up the signal again. But for fixed meters that require universal coverage, these gaps are more problematic. Moving the meters to pick up the signal is clearly out of the question, and filling in the gaps in the network requires building further expensive infrastructure.

Providing universal coverage for smart meters is even trickier than providing coverage to mobile phones that tend to be on desks, in cars, or more usually in someone’s pocket. Smart meters are located in cupboards, under staircases, in basements and in other awkward places. These places can be tricky for a communications network to penetrate, making universal coverage an even more difficult task.

Long Range Radio is a technology capable of meeting this challenge. Its relatively low frequency is better at penetrating walls and underground to reach meters than other frequencies used to carry data, such as cellular networks and Wi-Fi. The proportion of first-time connections possible with the single Long Range Radio solution is an unsurpassed 99.5%. This means that there is no need for additional technology to ‘fill in the gaps’.

Trying to reach universal coverage with a technology that cannot guarantee this creates a number of problems. Each additional installation visit, or ‘truck roll’, adds to the cost of the entire roll out. Notspots are difficult to identify in advance as they are not just a simple matter of geographical network coverage – there are too many other factors at play, such as the location of the meter in the building and even the building’s design. This means that the only point at which it will become evident that a meter installation will fail is once installation is initially attempted. If a communications network will reach, say, 80% of all meters, then retrospectively fixing the coverage for the remaining 20% is not a simple – nor cheap – matter.

Long Range Radio is currently in use by over four hundred separate electricity, water and gas companies across the USA, including state-wide in Nevada and Georgia. It has also been chosen by the UK to cover smart meters in Scotland and the North of England as part of the GB Smart Metering Programme. This is the most complex and demanding of the three regions, with a combination of vast rural areas and six of the ten largest urban areas of the UK. In areas where smart meter rollouts are complete, Long Range Radio reaches 99.5%+ of meters.

The choice currently facing Ireland – and any country looking to roll out smart meters - is whether or not to commit to a dedicated, future-proof, utility-grade network that is proven to reach almost every meter possible. In order to realise all of the benefits of the evolving smart grid in the decades to come – such as outage management, demand response, and fully integrated home area networks – every home possible will need a smart meter. Long Range Radio, being durable, secure, and cost-efficient, is the best choice for any smart meter rollout.

 Neil Adams is director, UK & Ireland for Sensus.

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Thank Neil for the Post!

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