The hard questions to ask BEFORE choosing your smart grid communications system



At this point, everyone realizes that getting the right communications network is essential to the success of any smart grid or smart meter project. And that getting the wrong network can not only detract from current success but prevent future growth and expansion.


That's why I was so pleased to get this guest contribution from the Wired Group's Paul Alvarez, because it lays out the questions you should ask yourself before you buy. It is excerpted from his new book Smart Grid Hype and Reality: A Systems Approach to Maximizing Customer Return on Utility Investment. Click the link to buy the book at a special discount for Smart Grid News readers. - Jesse Berst


by Paul Alvarez


Smart Meter Communications Network Choice Considerations

Though the Smart Grid Investment Grant program has certainly sped things along, the majority of Americans still do not have a smart meter. All those utilities yet to take the plunge can learn a lot from the utilities that have gone before them. Among the most strategic and critical lessons these utilities can learn concern smart meter communications systems. 


Smart meter communications and network design choices are among the most critical that can be made during the smart grid design phase. Not only are communication choices critical to initial and ongoing smart grid costs and economics, they determine the future functionality, security, interoperability, flexibility, and other characteristics of a distribution grid. There may be no decisions more defining of a grid’s future than those relating to communications, and several books are dedicated to the subject.


 (One of the most comprehensive presentations of smart grid communications theory, strategy, and practice is Smart Grid Communications and Networking, edited by Ekram Hossain, Zhu Han, and H. Vincent Poor.)

Smart Meter Data Availability

Communications choices can directly impact potentially important features such as data availability. As we mentioned in Part I, retail electric competition (for the commodity itself, not the distribution service) appears to be the likely future state for consumers in Australia, Europe, and North America (at a minimum). Accordingly, communities may wish to plan for this eventuality in smart meter communications network designs.


As was hoped for by its proponents, retail electric competition has spurred a great deal of market innovation in the U.S. Much of this innovation involves the outsourcing by customers of energy management activities to third-party service providers. These service providers aim to help customers save money by taking advantage of time-varying rates; that is, shifting their loads (such as for air conditioning and laundry) to avoid using electricity during high-priced periods and taking advantage of low-priced periods. Energy management companies such as EnerNOC and Comverge, as well as retail electric suppliers such as Direct Energy, are anxious to perform these functions for residential customers.  


These types of services, as well as concepts such as transactive energy markets, will rely on near real-time access to customers’ smart meter data as usage is occurring. Most of the smart meter communications networks being designed or in use today do not have such capabilities. A community discussion on the merits and extra costs (if any) of such capabilities is strongly advised before communications networks are designed and built.


Paul Alvarez is President of the Wired Group and author of Smart Grid Hype and Reality: A Systems Approach to Maximizing Customer Returns on Utility Investment. To receive a 20% discount off the cover price reserved especially for Smart Grid News readers, please click here.