It’s a busy week for smart grid vendors in Europe, where this week’s European Utility Week conference in Amsterdam is getting underway. Monday marks the first day of the conference, and already we’ve seen a host of announcements from smart metering vendors and supporting technology providers, all striving to serve up the best and broadest set of equipment and capabilities to enable the continent’s massive smart metering rollout plans.
Europe has already invested at least €5 billion in smart meters as of September 2012, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. That includes €2.1 billion ($2.8 billion) for Italy’s rollout of 36 million smart meters from 2001 to 2008; €1.5 billion ($2 billion) for Sweden’s 5.2-million-smart-meter deployment from 2003 to 2009; and €600 million to €900 million ($800 million to $1.07 billion) for Finland’s 5.1-million-meter rollout expected to be complete this year.
Beyond that, we’ve got promises from the U.K. to install 56 million smart meters by 2019, from France to install 35 million meters by 2017, and from Spain to install 28 million meters by 2018, all part of the European Union’s directive to push smart meters to most of its member countries’ residents by 2020. Adding commitments made by other EU member nations, JRC projects that smart metering investments will reach at least €30 billion ($40.2 billion) by 2020, with 170 million to 180 million smart meters installed.
Just when those nationwide smart meter deployments will really get up to speed is another question -- but there’s no doubt that the industry is geared up for the prospect. Here’s a breakdown of some noteworthy announcements from Europe this week.
- Pushing Network Smarts to the Grid Edge. Once a smart meter network is in place, what else can a utility do with it? One big smart meter provider trying to answer that question is Echelon Corp., the San Jose, Calif.-based company that’s deployed nearly 4 million meters across Europe -- not counting the 31 million or so meters, installed over the previous decade by Italy’s Enel, that are based on Echelon’s technology.
Part of Echelon’s approach is to embed a lot of intelligence in its meters and “edge control node” devices that connect meters to the utility. Since introducing the concept in 2010, it’s been beefing up these capabilities by adding processing power and sets of applications to manage “grid edge” tasks like distribution transformer monitoring, outage detection and low-voltage network loss detection.
On Monday, Echelon launched the DCN 3000, its latest version of its grid-edge controller, meant to expand those capabilities, as well as integrate them into a broader set of “internet of things” devices. The DCN 3000 features an ARM processor and Linux-based platform that allows it to support a multitude of communications protocols, including IPv6 from the device back to the utility.
That means that the company "can go to a customer and say, 'You can support all the devices you have on your network already, and start getting the benefits of TCP/IP up to your data center,'” Echelon CEO Ron Sege said in a phone interview. At the same time, as utilities begin to seek out ways to connect their smart grid networks to other devices, “You could plug an IP-enabled sensor into the DCN 3000. […] We can start speaking TCP/IP to the downstream,” he said.
That’s important for partners like Austria’s Kapsch Smart Energy, which recently announced pilots with three Austrian utilities that will use Echelon’s technology, aimed at delivering a smart metering platform that can eventually support other “high-value grid applications.”
While supporting existing grid equipment and its legacy protocols is a must-have, Sege said, “Frankly, I think there’s a trend toward having a common protocol, and common language, in all devices” -- and it’s a good bet that IPv6 will be that common language. Echelon’s work with U.S. utility Duke Energy illustrates how different vendor devices could be linked via common protocols, and the company is also involved in a project on the Swedish island of Gotland that’s building a reference architecture for multi-vendor device interoperability, he said.
- Building the Meter Network for the Mobile Network. Of course, Echelon isn’t the only smart meter technology vendor seeking to integrate with the broader set of technologies enabling the internet of things. In fact, the concept is becoming a common refrain for most of the industry, from Silver Spring Networks’ “smart city” projects in Paris, Singapore and San Antonio, Texas to meter vendor Itron’s partnership with Cisco on an IPv6-capable, multi-modal communications network.
On Monday, smart grid networking company Trilliant made its own bid for smart-meter-network-to-internet-of-things status with the announcement of its “Smart Meter M2M System.” The platform, already in use by the Redwood City, Calif.-based company’s clients in the U.K., brings a new set of mobile network capabilities to a portfolio that already includes 2.4-gigahertz mesh technologies and high-speed, long-range, low-latency “broadband mesh” communications.
Trilliant’s new support for mobile network operators (MNOs) “gives utilities a fully integrated connectivity experience, from commissioning of smart meters to downloading of energy tariffs and requests for meter data,” working across cellular and its in-house technologies alike, according to Monday’s announcement. In simple terms, it’s a move to keep up with competitors like Silver Spring and Itron, which have already committed themselves to supporting cellular communications.
Trilliant’s move makes a lot of sense, given that the U.K.’s recently announced smart meter rollout plans rely on cellular communications for core connectivity. The U.K.’s deregulated market is forcing utilities to deploy systems that can support multiple vendors’ smart electric and gas meters, as well as switch those devices between providers as customers pick and choose their energy retailers.
Expect a lot of competition in the U.K.’s still-gelling smart meter market, where Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr recently won a major contract with British Gas, and where U.S.-based Sensus is providing the networking technology for the country’s northern regions. At the same time, cellular providers like big U.K. contract winner Telefonica, as well as many other carriers that have traditionally provided grid-to-utility backhaul communications around the world, are expanding their reach into the smart grid.
- Going the Distance for Long-Range, Low-Power Networks. One of the promises of the internet of things is to eventually connect, well, pretty much every device capable of collecting data and transmitting a signal. We’ve been covering how this concept is being carried to street lights, parking spaces, building sensors, underground grid assets and other devices that could bring new monitoring and control capabilities to utilities, cities and other enterprises.
One of the biggest challenges for smart device networks like these is power consumption. Simply put, remote devices with limited battery life need to be carefully configured with the networks they’re connected to, to ensure that they’re able to keep running for years at a time.
This week, IBM and hardware partner Semtech unveiled one such solution, aimed at extending the reach of low-power device networks for up to 15 kilometers (9 miles) in one hop. The solution combines IBM’s Mote Runner software and Semtech’s SX127x with LoRa (long range) modulation technology, and is meant to handle millions of transactions per day.
The capabilities described sound a bit like those being promised by On-Ramp Wireless, a San Diego-based startup that’s partnering with General Electric on its smart meter point-to-multipoint network offering. But the potential uses of such low-power networks extends beyond smart grid to involve industrial, oil and gas, mining, transportation and other industries where lots of sensors could add lots of valuable data to the way business is run.
Stay tuned for more news from European Utility Week coming soon, including updates on developments in powerline carrier (PLC) technologies that are playing a key role in many of the continent’s biggest smart meter deployment plans.