Consumer expectations of utility companies have changed over the last decade or so, largely due to the ways in which large, customer-centric technology companies have redefined what it means to deliver exceptional services and user experiences. 

As friction in communications between users and producers fades and content is increasingly personalized, utility companies must rethink their relationships with their customers. 

Can energy platforms be built that are more efficient and deliver better experiences than existing networks?

Three factors that are transforming customer expectations and reshaping the power industry are digitalization (the move from analog or manual processes to digital ones), decentralization (energy trading and increased access to alternatives), and decarbonization (better, more efficient alternatives). Utility companies must navigate this landscape while simultaneously planning for disruptions like natural disasters, changing weather patterns, and new competitors.

Smart meters offer a workable solution to help utility companies, as well as businesses and governments, improve the efficiency of power provisioning while improving engagement with users, delivering exceptional experiences, and gathering the data that makes it all possible.

What Is a Smart Meter?

Smart meters are metering devices that provide real-time readings of electricity consumption to a power supplier or central hub. Readings can be taken at varying intervals, down to hourly readings in homes. Depending on the use case at hand, smart meters can also notify a utility provider to power down or even remotely switch power services.

Smart meters can be custom-built for specific purposes, but legacy systems can also be retrofitted with a small device installed in an electric panel to provide smart metering capabilities. From the point of view of a customer, once such a device is installed, there are no real changes in routines or the delivery of services; the only real difference is that the business or utility can enjoy greater insight into power usage without having to send field staff to take manual meter readings.

Benefits of Smart Metering

There are many benefits to smart metering, including the following:

  • Because your smart meter will send usage data automatically to the utility company or supplier, recording errors are eliminated.
  • Smart meters can help you accurately calculate costs and usage trends, and they also provide a great deal of transparency to users and providers alike when it comes to energy usage.
  • Users and utilities can identify waste points (such as theft detection), control their spending, and build an informed, data-driven strategy for power consumption. Utilities can also improve service provisioning and outage responses and can lower their maintenance costs and billing overheads.
  • Utilities can use power consumption data to create flexible pricing models and/or incentives based on high vs. low usage times, power storage capabilities, and the cost of power provisioning. Predictive analytics that consider factors such as weather, economic growth, and more can also be built into such models.
  • When used with smart IoT devices, smart meters form the basis of smart, hybrid energy grids that can lead to cleaner, safer, more sustainable, and more efficient energy services.

From the above, it is clear that smart meters can deliver a host of operational, financial, and customer benefits. In the sections below, we talk about how to build a smart meter-powered energy infrastructure that can help you do just that.

Smart Meters and Advanced Metering Infrastructure

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) refers to an entire power infrastructure grid, inclusive of smart meters and two-way communication networks that connect the meters, applications, and control centers involved in energy transmission and consumption. AMIs can communicate with smart meters in the field in real-time and can provide the power provider with remote meter reading capabilities, error-free reporting, problem identification, usage analysis, safety auditing, and efficient load distribution shedding.

AMIs are comprised of:

  • Smart meters that collect energy data and transmit it to utilities or suppliers. Meters can also receive data, such as pricing data, when to turn on, or when to power down.
  • Communication networks that enable two-way communications between installed smart meters and the utility company. Both wired as well as wireless technologies can be used for communications, as we will discuss below.
  • Data acquisition and processing systems that are comprised of the hardware and software that receive, process, analyze, and store smart meter data.

Challenges of Deploying AMIs

Despite their clear advantages, deploying an AMI can be challenging.

Some of the obstacles to utility companies may include:

  • High capital costs: The upfront costs of the devices, hardware, software, networks, and management needed to run an effective AMI can be substantial.
  • Integration: Your AMI must be integrated with customer information systems, utility information systems, outage control systems, mobile workforce devices, distribution systems, and more. 
  • Standardization: Without clearly defined interoperability standards and requirements for the AMI, it can be difficult to connect and manage the disparate systems needed to run a smart meter system.

Getting your smart meter strategy right requires an understanding of the technologies that your system should use, the goals you aim to achieve, and resources and limitations (if any) that can impact your system’s design. 

We discuss these factors below.

Designing and Deploying a Smart Meter System

Before you launch a smart meter initiative, ask the following questions:

  • What kinds of functionality do you need? Do you need remote meter programming or consumer-facing interfaces? What kinds of analytics are needed?
  • What communications technologies are available and would be best suited to those needs?
  • What kinds of interactions will you have with your consumers?
  • Think about device size and form factor. Can you choose devices with a form factor that can be used in different markets and with different technologies? Can your chosen smart meter devices be installed/integrated with existing/legacy infrastructure?
  • How much power will your network use, and can you lower power consumption? How frequently will maintenance and servicing be required?
  • How can you maximize device and network longevity?

When answering the above, one of the first things you need to do is choose from several connectivity standards for your network. Low-power wide-area networks (LPWAN) are a popular choice because they can provide you with wide-range connectivity that is inexpensive, long-lasting, and power-efficient. The main LPWAN options to consider are:

  • Narrow Band IoT (NB-IoT): NB-IoT devices have a long battery life (10 years or more), making them ideally suited to utility applications. NB-IoT operates on licensed frequency bands, allowing cellular and utility providers to use formal Service Level Agreements with their customers.
  • LoRaWAN (Long-Range Wide-Area Network): LoRaWAN operates on unlicensed frequencies but, despite providing long-term stability (20 years or more), it carries the risk of falling behind new technological advancements.
  • LTE-M/ Cat-M1: This provides faster transmission speeds and better range, particularly indoors, as compared to other LTE standards. It can lower power consumption (and therefore energy costs) and extend battery life while offering latency and bandwidth similar to those found in higher LTE categories.
  • 2G & 3G: Many utilities use LPWAN transmission for connectivity between field devices and sensors but still rely on technologies such as 2G and 3G to transmit regional data to central management systems.
  • 4G & 5G: 4G and 5G are pulling cellular connectivity to a new standard and upgrading to these new standards from NB-IoT, LoRaWAN, 2G, or 3G can future-proof your operations for years to come.

Once you have chosen a communications standard, try to answer the following questions:

  • How secure is the network?
  • Can your system handle power sampling at high rates? This is important for providing certain services, such as real-time data disaggregation that can identify energy-intensive devices or appliances and can help with analytics and maintenance/fault diagnostics.
  • Does your system support low latency communications? This is important for provisioning real-time automated demand responses.
  • Can your system be upgraded and customized? The introduction of many new consumer apps, distributed energy resources (DER) such as solar panels, and home energy storage systems to traditional grids means you should think about how you can future-proof your network.

Finally, think about whether the design, deployment, and maintenance of your system is something best handled in-house or if the expertise of a third-party vendor can help you lower your upfront design and launch costs while simultaneously helping you avoid common pitfalls and get up and running with a performant solution from the very onset.

Kajeet Managed IoT Solutions

Kajeet managed IoT solutions can provide you with the long-term availability, high-speed performance, custom design, and expert support you need to operate at a high level and deliver the services and savings needed to compete in today’s energy market. Contact us here to learn more about how we can help.