By Aaron F. Snyder

The overarching theme of this conference was the ongoing industry shift to utility advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) projects from the more traditional automatic meter reading (AMR) projects. The change in focus from AMR to AMI is a natural evolution of the automation of metering data capture and the move to use smart meters that include interval metering and disconnect capabilities. This particular evolutionary step touches many more areas of the typical utility business, from the actual metering devices across the communications infrastructure to the back-office information applications. There is also a much broader set of drivers than simple process automation behind this change, being more prominently cited in utility business cases, including

  • Energy efficiency
  • Demand response
  • Regulatory issues
  • Consumer expectations
  • Reliability
  • Environmental impact
  • The rapid design cycle of solid state (or electronic) metering devices
  • Globalisation of both the utility and vendor businesses.

All of these drivers go beyond the relatively simple set of constraints used to design meters in the recent past. The presentations at this conference allowed the attendees to view these drivers from a global perspective, while one presentation focused on the actual devices and technologies involved.

The global perspective on the fuel constraints and related energy efficiency and demand response efforts was provided by a number of presenters and included the conference keynote from a policy and public affairs viewpoint, updates on consumer-facing technologies for emerging home area network (HAN) solutions, as well as detailed technical issues around the difficulties in integrating latching relays (also known as reconnect/disconnect switches) into electric metering devices. Attendees were able to engage in discussions at all levels of detail, from the high-level broad overview to the circuit level facets of device design, and understand how these topics could be extended into discussions on reliability and environmental impact.

Given the conference title, one would expect there to be a number of presentations on meter design, and on this point attendees had little to criticise. Every aspect of metering design was scrutinised from component design and selection, to materials considerations, type-testing standards, customer design requirements, communications protocols for metering, and impracticalities of a single device for every market. In fact, if one word other than ‘AMI’ was uttered by both presenters and attendees alike it would have been ‘standards’.

While standards do indeed allow stakeholders to negotiate some sort of middle ground, there is always room for injecting interoperability onto the agenda. Indeed, with the proliferation of standards-based and standardscompliant devices, a method to classify the actual ability of these devices to work together in a transparent, auditable manner is still missing. Several industry groups such as the UCA International Users Group (UCAIUG; previously Utility Communications Architecture), the Device Language Message Specification (DLMS) User Association and standards groups such as MultiSpeak and ZigBee have significant conformance and interoperability efforts as a requirement for being certified.

The flip side of focusing on standards is exposing the glaring differences and regionality of standards for metering and communications. While it is possible to develop a sensing technology device that can measure any voltage (120, 240, 220 V, etc.), current and frequency (50 and 60 Hz), almost every other aspect of an electric meter is different, including physical package (according to DIN, ABNT, JSA, ANSI standards, etc.), environmental resistance (according to ANSI, IEC, JSA, ABNT, AS standards, etc.), and performance in the presence of certain phenomena such as external magnetic fields, electric fields in the cellphone spectra and harmonics in the electric service.

Unfortunately, many more issues exist beyond physical form factor and performance, including certification, acceptance testing, reliability testing (in-service testing), labelling, communications certification, and so on. While there has been significant globalisation from the stakeholder side (multi-national utilities, vendor consortia), there remains a great divide on the technical and performance expectations of these devices.

Aside from investigating the technical aspects of meter design, conference attendees had the opportunity to be informed on several utility and vendor AMI deployments in North America and Europe, as well as two discussions targeted on the future of both AMI and smart grid developments. In these presentations, elements crucial to AMI project business case development were visibly linked to project technical solutions, and all presenters demonstrated how global vision, multi-vendor interoperability, well ordered extensibility and standards are contributing to their particular programme. Many utilities have concluded and developed their business plans around the expectation that advanced metering communications and control infrastructure can be leveraged for other purposes, and in fact this is one of the cornerstones of what is commonly referred to as the smart grid.

A smart grid leverages the right sensors with the right communications and the appropriate software applications to enable operation and control of the grid in a smart manner. This includes being proactive instead of reactive with respect to load (demand response), offsetting generation construction (energy efficiency), incorporating renewable generation technologies (improved control and energy storage), improving supply (power quality) and recovery from system events (low voltage, blackouts, storms). Meters are one critical piece of this smart grid picture and they are not just revenue devices – the same sensing technology can be used to provide what some consider to be intelligent electronic device (IED) capabilities, relatively inexpensive power quality monitors, and demand control devices via the reconnect/disconnect switches.

So it was interesting that a standards meeting almost broke out at the design congress, but given that many aspects and interfaces for meters are driven by agreed-upon standards, such dialogue should not really have been a surprise. It will be encouraging to see this same conference devote sessions to interoperability and reports of operational deployments in its second iteration, as there should be a few more AMI projects to reference by mid-2009.

Though security was not a specific conference theme, a session devoted to the security aspects of metering and AMI allowed industry stakeholders to discuss how concepts and policies being developed by groups such as the UtilityAMI AMI-SEC (SEC – security) task force affect meter and system design. This is an absolutely critical piece to the smart grid vision and the future of power systems operation and control.

One last challenge will be for the attendees to participate even more heavily in standards and industry groups to carry the vision of a true, interoperable, smart grid closer to reality, and leave behind some of the existing notions of what constitutes interoperability and security from the past.