Meeting the smart meter head end challenge

Managing advanced metering infrastructure operations is key for the business case.
Published: Thu 13 Oct 2016

Smart meter rollouts rarely use a single meter type from a single supplier. Besides reducing the business risk by avoiding vendor lock in, different hardware and constantly evolving standards and security requirements will lead to an ever growing diversity within meter networks.

In theory adherence to standards should ensure full interoperability, but in practice this doesn’t happen due to differing interpretations. In addition, each meter type comes with its own head end and software. And the result is what can be an unnecessarily complex integration and operational headache, which could go as far as breaking the original smart meter business case.

“With small numbers of meters at pilot scale there isn’t an issue but once one gets up to several tens of thousands in a large-scale rollout, the challenge becomes very real,” Ferry Cserép, co-founder and CEO of Dutch meter software provider Netinium, told Engerati in an interview.

“Imagine if just 1% of meters are ‘lost’ in installation and there has to be a second visit by an installer or if meters are not configured properly and give incorrect reads, there could be serious financial impacts for the company.”

Dutch smart meter experience

Cserép and Netinium bring some 20 years of experience to the issue through collaboration with Alliander as the grid operator has advanced its remote metering and now smart metering activities. Along the way there has been the development and subsequent iterations (currently in the fifth) of the Dutch Smart Metering Requirements (DSMR) and the moves towards a national mandate.

Now the Dutch smart metering deployment is in full-swing, with Alliander itself up to about 1.3 million end points currently. But there are meters in the field from eight different vendors and with the various DSMR iterations (particularly DSMR2 and DSMR4), while there also has been a shift in communications protocols from the earliest deployments with PLC to GPRS and now to a utility exclusive CDMA network.

Netinium’s role was to develop a central software layer to integrate the smart meters to Alliander’s back-end. Along with the programme evolution, this has been evolved into a full head-end platform that can integrate the plethora of meters from the different vendors with their different communication technologies. In this way it not only replaces the vendor supplied head-ends but eases the complexities of integration that would otherwise result from their differences.

“We found that while the meters need to be connected with business processes, there also are the processes necessary to manage the meters in the field,” says Cserép. “All of these can be automated and have evolved into our platform.”



Single head end benefits

Cserép points to several advantages of a single head end, of which one is a reduction of the number of management procedures required to a single uniform set across all types of meters and communication technologies. This in turn results in a reduction in the number of staff required in for example control rooms, with a consequent reduction in operational costs.

In addition to a simplification at the front end, the back end procedures are also simplified, with a CIM standard interface that can be directly connected to meter data management systems, GIS systems, outage management systems or others.

“As smart metering rollouts ramp up to large scale the benefits and flexibility of a single platform are clear,” he says. “Being able to provide device, configuration, security, event and network management  of  large numbers of smart meters seamlessly from a single operational environment, including both historical and future devices, improves operational efficiency and controls costs.”

And that is key for the business case, he adds, reminding that smart metering needs ongoing operational activity, with for example firmware upgrades.

“The platform is the hinge between the field and the business and it must be stable and solid, while also being adaptable. The field  is changing all the time but one doesn’t want to keep having to change one’s IT systems.”

In addition to Alliander in the Netherlands, Netinium’s platform is being used by utilities in the Middle East and Africa, among other locations.

A multi-device platform

Looking ahead, further developments are afoot for Netinium’s platform, with plans to extend its use to other ‘devices’ such as EV charging infrastructure, public lighting installations or PV panel monitoring.

“It would be silly not to use all the lessons we have learned without applying them to other application areas,” says Cserép, hinting to imminent plans to get some pilots going. “It ties to our vision that only one single operational environment is needed to connect anything that is digital in the electrical network in order to manage it. The Internet of Things is bringing a growing number of devices and so a central platform could be the key to survival.”

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