Dutch smart meter experience - lessons from a mass rollout

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Smart metering technology company Netinium reflects on 20 years of intelligent metering in the Netherlands, supporting Dutch utility Alliander.

The Netherlands smart meter rollout continues to draw interest as a good test case for how to digitise electricity and gas measurement at scale.

The European Union member state mandated a smart electricity and gas meter deployment following a cost-benefit analysis of €770 million of positive benefits.

This equates to approximately €50 per metering point and energy savings between 3% and 6%, close to the average for European countries.

Energy network company Alliander is one of four Dutch grid operators, including Enexis, Stedin and Enduris, that have committed to deploy 15m smart gas and electricity meters by 2020.

According to its roll-out planning, Alliander will reach a milestone of 2m smart meters online during 2017 out of a total of 6m planned in its service territory.

Dutch meter management company Netinium has worked with the distribution system operator since 1997 on its smart metering programme.

Netinium CEO Ferry Cserép said the experience of providing Alliander with a multi-vendor head end platform was not a “smooth ride” but the many lessons learned in the “Dutch smart meter school” are valuable for other utilities in Europe and emerging smart meter markets such as Africa.

Smart meter data - lessons for a distribution system operator

One key learning from a smart meter deployment is gaining experience in managing large quantities of networked devices and data, says Cserép.

In fact, smart meter infrastructure is usually a distribution system operator’s (DSO) first application of a broader smart grid vision.

It is a crucial step therefore that will help DSOs understand the complexities involved when other verticals such as photovoltaics or energy storage are deployed en masse and they have to start managing “everything electrically connected that will also become digitally connected”.

Another big learning from Netinium’s 20 years’ experience with Alliander is to realise that it is not only about meter rollouts but even more so about being able to manage evolution over time, says Cserép.  

A DSO’s landscape of smart meters and other digitally connected devices will always change whether for evolving business requirements, technology, security or connectivity needs.

This drives the need to be agnostic to device manufacturers and communication networks.

Cserép says: “As we’ve seen with Alliander, over time we’ve integrated meters from more than 10 different vendors, progressed with the Dutch Smart Meter Requirements standards from version one to version five and changed communication networks four times.

“In operational terms, this means our platform has to support more than 150 different combinations of electricity and gas meters in a live production environment.”

He adds: “Once you realise you have that diversity concurrently in your service territory, you understand why you need a common head end platform that is adaptable to that changing environment.

“Being able to manage the evolution of that first central layer is the biggest lesson we have learned.”

Smart meter communications - changing needs

As Cserép highlights, connectivity is one variable that will “certainly change over time and like security be a constant concern”.

Alliander used power line communication technology for its early smart meter deployment but then changed to GPRS due to a change in the way the rollout was being deployed, he says.

However, Cserép foresees that GPRS might fade out from telecom offerings at some point, and then the utility sector will progress to something new like LTE or NB-IOT.

He cites the example of Alliander and Stedin acquiring their own mobile network based on CDMA. 

And the implication of different communication capabilities operating concurrently? Cserép says that being able to solve that complex environment and manage legacy and new devices reliably to the same standard is an operational challenge.

Challenge of metering standards

In fact, management of standards is the only way forward to allow interoperability across the different domains that will make up the smart grid, and make digitally connected local generation such as PV, local storage and EV charging work in unison across the grid on a large scale.

However, Cserép notes that the Netherlands smart meter rollout experience shows it is extremely difficult within a single vertical like smart metering to come up with standards that are applicable on a national scale let alone on a global scale.

He says: “In Europe, there won’t be a single standard that will prevail. It will be a patchwork of things as we’ve seen with smart metering.”

Another issue with evolving standards (and technologies and security needs) is the pace of change.

Cserép describes the scenario of how a distribution system operator may be installing large quantities of meters, but already be thinking about the next iteration.

“You realise you’re rolling out smart meters that you don’t want because you’ve progressed to designing and deciding on the next generation - you know you’re going to advance but you have to put the current generation on the wall today.

"And this problem will only multiply when applied to tens or hundreds of different devices that will make up the smart grids of tomorrow.”

Smart meter use cases

Cserép gives the example of the UK where the national rollout is deploying phase one smart meters but will certainly need a second and possibly third phase due to the complexity of use cases.

He says the UK needs “fewer use cases to chew on” and the lesson here is starting slow.

“In the Netherlands, when we started discussing smart metering 20 years ago, we came up with 40-45 functions that could be embedded within an electronic meter revolving around three axes of thinking.

He says the first was to improve retail processes with proper billing, the second to allow distribution system operators to manage power quality and outages, and third allowing the smart meter to act as a platform to enable third parties to create products and services.

“In the late 1990s, we were only using smart meters for retail processes. It is only now we have large quantities of data and know how to analyse and process that data properly that we can also utilise other smart meter functions.”

But despite a blueprint of use cases, the Netherlands has still changed how it is using the smart meter system.

The Dutch utility sector envisioned standard meter readings would be six times a year with an opt-in for consumers who wanted a daily meter read.

But the majority of meters are being read every day as energy retailers want to have that data and present it to their consumers.

Cserép explains: “The load on the system has increased because the way we envisioned using the system has changed and that puts a stress on IT systems and the communication network and also the way you work with devices. That is another transition for the future, things will become more real-time.

"Fortunately, we are working on a day-to-day basis to help our customer with this never-ending evolution from smart metering towards a fully digitised smart grid."

And the last piece of the Dutch smart meter experience? To engage the customer with energy savings and services?

Yes, he agrees but that is more delicate to achieve and requires a behavioural change for Dutch energy customers, a goal shared by many European countries and beyond embarking on smart metering programmes.

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