. The UK's smart meter rollout is highly unusual. (Please use the Talk Back comment form below if you know of any other spot in the world using a similar approach.) It is a deregulated jurisdiction -- a single distribution entity provides the wires but customers can buy power from a long list of different retailers. .
The UK's smart meter rollout is highly unusual. (Please use the Talk Back comment form below if you know of any other spot in the world using a similar approach.) It is a deregulated jurisdiction -- a single distribution entity provides the wires but customers can buy power from a long list of different retailers.
Each retailer has its own rate plan, its own "bundles" and its own add-on services and incentives. "You can drive down a street and each house you pass might have completely different gas and electricity suppliers," explained Rob Conant, Trilliant's Chief Marketing Officer.
Here's the odd part -- the retailers own the meters, not the distribution utility. As a result, retailers must abide by stringent technical standards, so the meter can be taken over by a different retailer when and if the customer decides to switch providers. A complicating factor: The government still hasn't locked down all the standards. At this stage, early movers are doing their best to meet the standards that do exist while lobbying hard in various groups for the extensions and improvements they want to see.
The country is currently in the "Foundation Stage" where retailers are allowed to experiment with different offerings. Later the government will decide which things will be allowed permanently. One government goal is plug-and-play compatibility between meters of different brands.
For its client British Gas -- which, by the way, sells electricity as well as gas -- Trilliant provides head-end software as well as the "communications hub." The hub is a gateway inside the metering closet that talks to gas and electricity meters and to the in-home displays that are a part of the UK rollout. (In the future, the hubs may talk to smart thermostats and/or other devices that use the ZigBee standard.) For its initial smart metering efforts, British Gas is targeting its "dual-fuel" customers -- those who are buying both gas and electricity.
The head-end software manages the communications network and the devices, to allow such things as firmware upgrades. The software also supports basic meter data management functions and some business processes. Today's announcement is that Trilliant will be upgrading the head-end software to allow prepayment.
Although Trilliant is best known in North America for its RF mesh technology, in the UK it uses ZigBee inside the premises and cellular to carry the data back.
Deregulation breeds complexity
The UK's unusual situation creates issues not found in areas where the meters are owned by the distribution company. For one thing, Trilliant has to be able to support a change of suppliers. If the customer picks a different retailer, the meter must be wiped clean -- no data may persist. Trilliant must also accommodate the meter's transfer of ownership to the new retailer and must assure that the consumption data now goes to a new place.
And since many houses have both gas and electric meters running over the same communications network, Trilliant had the additional challenge of ensuring that information could not "leak across" from one meter to the other.
And deregulation has also bred "get-it-right" urgency. Conant believes that the UK's electric power and gas retailers are more customer-focused than anywhere else in the world. Case in point: "There's big pressure to succeed with the initial installation," explains Conant. Since meters are inside the premise, the installer must make an appointment to visit. Average installation time is 1-2 hours, including the in-home display. "It is essential that it work right so the customers become fans of smart meters and do not create pushback of the kind seen in the U.S."
Prepay may be easier in the UK
"Prepay is very popular in the UK," Conant told me. "And a cell phone tie-in is important. They want text alerts when they near their ceiling plus the ability to buy more power right from the phone."
What's next and what it means
Smart meters are showing up in a hit-and-miss fashion in the UK so far as retailers work to find the right formula. Conant predicts that "volumes will increase in 2013 but especially in 2014 when more of the regulatory hurdles are out of the way."
Conant thinks -- and I agree -- that the UK experience further reinforces the fact that future communications systems will be hybrids that mix and match different technologies -- cellular, RF mesh, broadband, powerline -- to get the job done.
"Most utilities in the U.S. are using a combination of technologies," Conant claimed. "For RF mesh, the limitation is the cost of rolling it out to the whole territory. If regulators are up for it, that's a great approach. If not, if they want to deploy gradually over time, then cellular is a great fit."
If he's right -- and I think he is -- then utilities will be looking hard for systems that can manage multiple communications pathways through a single console. And for systems that are future-friendly -- that make it easier to layer in new communications technologies as they appear.
The world will be watching the UK's unusual experiment -- and, I hope, borrowing what works. If that happens, we may see a proliferation of hybrid communications systems. And a day when retailers own and subsidize the cost of smart meters, thermostats and in-home displays.
Should the rest of the world head down this path? Use the survey form to vote and the TalkBack form to say more.
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Jesse Berst is the founder and chief analyst of Smart Grid News.com, the industry's oldest and largest smart grid site. A frequent keynoter at industry events in the U.S. and abroad, he also serves on advisory committees for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Institute for Electric Efficiency. He often provides strategic consulting to large corporations and venture-backed startups. He is a member of the advisory boards of GridGlo and Calico Energy Services.
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