Smart meters have gained quite a lot of popularity across the globe in recent years. Organisations are acknowledging the advantages of smart meters and adopting them to increase the efficiency and accuracy of utilities management. Companies globally have already announced investments of more than USD 62 billion for smart meter infrastructure, and Telefonica, for example, expects to see between 90 and 130 million intelligent electricity and gas meters deployed by 2022. Asian countries are positioning themselves as the leaders in this space: there is an ambition that by 2022, 70 percent of all homes in the region will be connected via smart meters. The EU has estimated that the replacement of 80% of current electricity meters by smart meters would reduce the region’s carbon emissions by 9% by 2020, and bring down annual household energy consumption by a similar amount.
The many advantages associated with the use of smart meters – both from consumers and utility companies’ perspective – are drivers of their strong growth. Energy companies can use smart meters to reduce their operational costs considerably, as fewer call-outs are needed, and the accuracy of billing is improved. The latter benefits consumers too, of course – while smart meters also eliminate the hassle of monthly or quarterly meter readings. In the past, to make it easy for utilities’ personnel to take readings, meters have been placed outside of buildings or at the edge of gardens. Smart meters can however be placed anywhere within the household.
Thanks to smart, often near-real-time dashboards, homeowners and renters can keep a closer eye on their energy usage. Last, but certainly not least, the insights provided by the smart meter infrastructure can be used for the creation of an even more customer-centric tariff structure. For example, smart water meters allow the gradation of water consumption, depending on household usage in rented properties, or weather conditions – such as water scarcity in summertime in all homes – through their remote-controlled valves. This enables the optimal usage of water resources.
Critical infrastructure foundations for smart metering
Smart meters exist for all essential services, from gas and electricity to water and temperature. To use this data effectively, the devices are connected securely to an IoT platform over the internet that collects and analyses the data. Via a number of dashboards, users and energy suppliers can access this data and generate usage models, statistics and bills.
Yet, smart meters – which exist in many forms, from completely new meters to retrofitted options for legacy technology – are just the tip of an IoT infrastructure iceberg. For them to truly live up to their potential, the infrastructure of the individual measuring devices need to work perfectly with the network, the IoT platform and the applications on top to enable businesses and consumers access the data they collect seamlessly.
Connectivity everywhere – transcending the internet
Especially in emerging markets of Asia and Africa, the smart meter infrastructure can be held back by the lack of widespread, high quality electric and telecoms network connectivity. For example, it is difficult to leverage power line communications technology on the smart electric network, which is widely used in Europe. Similarly, using wired telephone lines to transfer smart meter data can be difficult as well. To connect the meters to the IoT platform that they depend on to function, they need a robust connection that is not always available. Yet, in many cases, measurement stations are located in cellars or behind thick walls which can cause trouble for conventional mobile networks.
A Long Range Wide Area Network, or LoRaWAN, can be the solution to these problems. This technology has been specifically designed for IoT devices such as smart meters. It’s an innovative networking solution that uses a number of different frequencies in the ISM-band and SRD products, depending on region. The network technology only supports a particular data bandwidth per device, but it is significantly more energy efficient and reliable. That makes it ideal for an IoT infrastructure that cannot endure outages, such as smart meters. Thanks to the low energy consumption of LoRaWAN, smart meters for gas usage can be installed independent from the main power source – with a battery life of up to 15 years.
LoRaWAN’s range is another significant advantage in building the infrastructure for smart meters. With a range of between 4 and 20 km, depending on building density, especially rural regions, this technology can cover incredible distances with comparatively little infrastructure investment.
Just like conventional mobile networks, LoRaWAN is not a single-use infrastructure, specifically built for smart meters. In many cases, such a network is the first step in the creation of a flexible and powerful IoT infrastructure that can be used by many applications like home automation, smart streets lights, and so on.
One of the biggest LoRaWANs of this kind is currently being built by Tata Communications in India. With the target of connecting more than 2,000 communities and covering hundreds of millions of people, it will be the foundation for a complete IoT infrastructure in the country. Over an open platform, such a huge network can be used for a number of other IoT applications aside from smart meters, paving the way and acting as the critical foundation for smart cities and communities.
Truly smart metering through an IoT platform
A key building block for a meaningful smart meter infrastructure is the IoT platform. Data is collected via a smart meter and transmitted over LoRaWAN, but only at the IoT platform level does the meter truly become smart. In a way, this platform forms the core of the system. The data received by the individual measuring devices has to be consolidated, stored and analysed. Here the system really shows what it can do. Such a platform needs to be accessible, robust, have good analytical capabilities and, above all, ensure the security of any sensitive customer data.
Entry into such an extensive infrastructure market puts many smaller players like regional energy providers and start-ups at a disadvantage. To overcome this barrier and accelerate the adoption of smart metering, Tata Communications has created an open platform that is accessible for all players to build their own smart metering services on top. The company also provides ready-to-use applications leveraging data collecting from the meters.
For now, smart metering is mainly gathering pace in the energy market, boosting efficiencies and enhancing the customer experience. Yet, when underpinned by the right IoT platform, and connected with other solutions in a smart city, they could pave the way for additional value-added services for the benefit of consumers, businesses and society as a whole.
Read about how IOT is evolving.