Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s 27-million-unit smart meter project isn’t just about smart meters. It’s also about creating an end-to-end, citywide energy management platform, meant to link meters, utility enterprise platforms and smart devices in homes and businesses. And, if the project's open standards efforts pay off, it won’t just work with a select set of technologies, but remain open to future versions of “internet of things” deployments for years to come.

That’s the technology challenge that TEPCO, Japan’s biggest utility, is taking on with key partner Toshiba and subsidiary Landis+Gyr, and it’s likely to influence how the rest of Japan -- and possibly broader Asian markets -- approach the next generation of smart grid deployments. TEPCO and its fellow utilities recently saw their smart meter deployment plans put on an increasingly fast track in hopes of managing the country’s ongoing post-Fukushima energy crisis, as well as to prepare for a potential shift to a deregulated energy market in 2016.

At the same time, “The government has mandated a top-down standards based approach for everything, in order to maximize interoperability,” Heath Thompson, chief technology officer at Landis+Gyr North America, told me in a Monday interview. Indeed, Japan has led an international group of grid vendors in creating the Wi-SUN Alliance, which is developing a set of IPv6-based technologies that bridge many interoperability gaps that exist today between wireless mesh, powerline carrier (PLC) and home area network (HAN) technologies.

This is significantly different from the biggest smart meter deployments in Europe and North America to date, by the way. Most of today’s advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) networks use various combinations of proprietary and open technologies that may present challenges to future interoperability. Nor have they necessarily demonstrated a well-thought-out pathway for turning those meters into conduits for customer connectivity and energy management.

These features aren’t unique to TEPCO, Landis+Gyr, Toshiba and its partners -- the latest generations of AMI technology from different vendors are pulling together many of the same concepts. But when it comes to a real-world test bed, Tokyo is about as big as you can get. Here’s how this project is breaking new ground.

1) TEPCO wants all three flavors of meter network -- not just for meters, but for devices in homes and businesses. Toshiba and Landis+Gyr’s work on the technology needed to meet TEPCO’s multi-modal metering communications plans involves multiple meter manufacturers, all building to a modular design that can permit the swapping out of three flavors of communication, Thompson said. Those include wireless mesh of the type used in most North American AMI networks, PLC tech of the type used widely in Europe, and cellular communications to pull public wireless into play.

That means, whichever meter vendors TEPCO ends up picking, “The only networking cards that exist are the ones that Toshiba and Landis+Gyr are providing,” whether for wireless mesh or PLC, he said. That holds true for the five different, as yet unnamed meter vendors recently awarded contracts by TEPCO for its first wave of deployments set to begin in October, he said.

When TEPCO launches its 6,000-meter field pilot in April, all three flavors of communications will be represented, linked via the same Landis+Gyr head-end AMI system into its meter data management platform, he added. In TEPCO’s parlance, these field-area network technologies are known as “Route A” systems, he said.

Beyond that, “clearly the plan is to test all the foundational elements -- the meter as well as the HEMS ecosystem,” he said. HEMS stands for "home energy management system," which will use a set of communications known as “Route B” systems. But where most other AMI systems break field-area networks and their home area networks into separate technologies, Japan is using the same 802.15.4g wireless mesh and G3 PLC technologies for both sides of the meter, he said.

“That’s a big difference in terms of fundamental technologies -- and it poses some complexities that are first of a kind for what we’re doing,” he said. The Wi-SUN Alliance has helped to create a forum to get these new IPv6-capable technologies integrated into a range of alternatives, such as previous versions of wireless mesh from Silver Spring Networks, Itron and Elster, or the ECHONET Lite low-power wireless tech that’s serving as an alternative to ZigBee for in-home connectivity in Japan. 

While the first Wi-SUN-certified products are starting to be announced this year, however, “There is a little bit of a trick to go from a Wi-SUN certified system to a system that will actually work,” Thompson noted. Under its work with TEPCO, on the other hand, “if a utility like TEPCO puts its might behind something, that tends to legitimize a standard much more than anything a standards body might do on its own,” he added.

2) TEPCO needs its smart meter network to scale big -- and scale both ways. “Another thing that’s kind of unique about the Japanese market is the scalability of the system,” he said. TEPCO’s 27 million smart meters are each meant to network with multiple in-premise devices, and “you have to have the scalability, from the individual components back to the head-end, to deal with those huge volumes of meter data.”

That’s intensified by TEPCO’s decision to collect data in 30-minute intervals for all customers -- and to actually collect all that data every 30 minutes, he said. That’s in contrast to bundling up interval measurements for backhaul to the utility head-end system every few hours, as many other AMI networks do, he said.  “That puts a significant scaling problem on the network, and our Gridstream system was built for that horizontal scalability.” 

There’s also the two-way data exchange scalability challenge, to manage Japan’s desire to “push” demand response and energy management capabilities through its smart meter networks. “Right now, the Japanese market is very focused on getting the foundation in place. But very soon, they’re going to start thinking about these two-way transactions -- not just incoming metering data, but outgoing messages to control HEMS devices, shut down smart thermostats, and the like,” he said.

Just which technologies will be put into play to control end loads en masse is still an open question. Japan has been inviting many demand response companies from abroad to pilot programs with Japanese partners, including EnerNOC, Comverge, Energy Pool and Schneider Electric, and AutoGrid in partnership with NTT Data. It’s also seeking to implement OpenADR, the emerging standard for automating real-time, two-way demand response -- one example of the types of protocols that TEPCO’s smart meter network ought to be able to support, Thompson said.

“Whether they’re sitting on top of this entire stack on the back office -- which you can do with OpenADR -- or whether you need a new applet running on the endpoint that’s understanding a command that wasn’t thought of when the system was put out there…that’s very important to the Japanese market, and it’s very important to Landis+Gyr as well.”

3) TEPCO wants standards-based security shot through its architecture. An end-to-end devices-to-utility back office network needs end-to-end security, and “the security technology that’s being used in TEPCO is also very standards-driven,” he said. In this case, that means using Protocol for Carrying Authentication for Network Access (PANA), which treats every node in the network with the same security authentication and public-private key encryption.

Other AMI networks may apply this IP-based security protocol to one or another part of the larger system, but since they don’t extend down to each end device, they’ve been forced to use other methods to manage those “joining” points, he said. “The more you can have an end-to-end security model, the information that starts in some business application in the utility back office can transmit all the way to an end device,” he said. That “fundamentally guards against what are called ‘man in the middle’ attacks,” in which an insecure point in the network chain can be targeted for intrusion.

Landis+Gyr has been applying similar cybersecurity approaches in Germany, another market with an AMI-to-HAN architecture that’s being forced to adhere to strict government security principles. With smart grid cybersecurity a topic of increasing concern to utilities and governments around the world, this kind of expertise is likely to become more important for grid vendors in years to come.

4) TEPCO wants an interoperable future, both inside and outside Japan. Japan is emerging as a key test market for a whole range load control devices, smart thermostats and appliances, and other smart, networked devices that fall under the category of the “internet of things.” It’s also a key market for combinations of solar PV, batteries, electric vehicle chargers, building energy management systems and advanced microgrid control platforms being tested in Japan’s “smart city” projects.

Toshiba is one of several Japanese giants testing these technologies, as part of its “smart community vision, where you’re utilizing the resources available to you to provide a better quality of living on the residents’ behalf,” Thompson said. While these types of projects aren’t yet explicitly part of TEPCO’s smart meter plans, “This vision that Toshiba is building with TEPCO is very much a part of Toshiba’s corporate vision, dealing with aspects like information technology, security, and healthcare.”

And because distributed-computing-equipped devices need energy to keep running, “energy management is kind of at the heart of the internet of things,” he said. “The consumer doesn't think about [things like], ‘I need to make sure the energy management is in place before my coffeepot can talk to my car,’ but they do expect the power to be there when they want it to be there.”

And as with so many Japanese technology innovations, what’s first tested at home is meant for export to global markets, he said. TEPCO and Toshiba “want to take the technologies they’re working on today and offer them to the world,” he said.