Meter Communication: Key technology options and deployment challenges

Key technology options and deployment challenges

Meter communication lies at the heart of power system efficiency, offering a range of benefits to the utility. To begin with, it enables remote monitoring of the utility’s infrastructure. Further, a bidirectional communication system provides the utility access to a large amount of real-time data, which can be analysed to rectify errors and plug technical gaps. The deployment of communication technology also makes the system more transparent, which, helps establish better consumer connect. This also ensures that customers are proactively involved in the entire process.

Communication technology aids timely detection of faults and, if supplemented by additional solutions, has the potential to identify the exact source of leakage/fault. Communication is the need of the hour from a regulatory perspective as well. The revised National Tariff Policy, 2016 mandates the installation of smart meters for consumers with a consumption of over 200 units by December 2019. Since the countrywide installation is running behind schedule, utilities are fast-tracking their smart meter installation to meet the deadline.

Communication technology options

To choose from the array of communication technologies, it is essential to factor in the key parameters. To begin with, the utilities need to decide whether the meter roll-out under consideration is scattered or clustered, since the requirements of these two set-ups are likely to differ.

The next step is to gauge the risk-taking capacity of the utility. While some utilities have a higher risk appetite and are willing to adopt solutions that have not been tested yet, others are relatively conservative and prefer deploying lab-tested technologies. Thereafter, the utility needs to prioritise entities along the value chain. It is imperative to decide whether the communication vendor would receive priority or the meter vendor. Alternatively, the utility may adopt a holistic approach that values all the participating entities equally. Lastly, in order to make an informed decision, utilities often conduct pilot projects deploying different technologies to delve deeper into technology deployment and the potential challenges.

The communication technology options available for utilities include power line communication (PLC), general packet radio service (GPRS) and radio frequency (RF) mesh communication. PLC is a traditional and reliable technology available to electric power utilities for critical communication channels and protection signalling. In PLC, radio frequency signals are transmitted through power transmission lines. PLC has a significantly higher mechanical strength than ordinary lines and thus, remains unaffected even in adverse conditions. GPRS is one of the first cellular communication technologies. GPRS uses the existing telecom infrastructure to transmit data from smart meters. GPRS solutions are well suited for areas where the use of PLC or RF mesh is technically inconvenient or too expensive. These solutions are not only cost effective but also have advantages such as resistance to external interference and low average power consumption. RF mesh communication technology comprises radio nodes organised in a mesh topology. Wireless mesh networks consist of mesh clients, mesh routers and gateways. Mesh clients refer to laptops, cell phones and other wireless devices and mesh routers forward traffic to and from the gateways. A mesh network offers enhanced reliability. Even if one of the nodes of the network fails to work, the other nodes can be used for communication purposes. Further, the technology allows automatic clustering and declustering of meters when network devices fail or stop functioning. The biggest advantage of the technology is scalability and adaptability, and it can thus be utilised for longer time horizons. In addition, it has self-healing properties that significantly bring down operating costs.

Challenges and the way forward

The biggest challenge for the discoms is to keep pace with the constantly evolving technology. New technological solutions are emerging at an unprecedented rate, rendering various options obsolete. Thus, utilities must adopt communication solutions that offer scalability and can adapt to different circumstances. Another major challenge is handling the quantum of data transmitted from meters. Though this data can provide a lot of insights to utilities, managing the data can be a problem. To this end, utilities must support advanced communication technologies with sophisticated data management tools in order to efficiently manage and analyse the data. Further, limited customer awareness is an impediment. Customers need to have a basic understanding of the technology to ensure better results. Awareness at the consumer end enables a smooth flow of information and prevents resistance to new technologies and solutions. This, in turn, allows utilities to better manage the distribution network.

Smart meter deployment in India is slowly gaining ground though a complete shift to smart meters is still awaited. The initial smart meter wave has had a considerable impact on technology maturity and market offerings. As a result, new technologies are emerging while existing ones are being constantly upgraded in a bid to contribute to the larger shift towards digitalisation.

Based on a presentation by Susmita Sen, Manager, Metering, CESC