By José Basílio Simões

A pilot project with 2,000 homes in Coimbra, Portugal, clearly demonstrates that it is possible to install, in a cost effective way, a multi-utility remote metering system that addresses in a scalable way the main concerns of both utility companies.

When comparing the modern consumer with its counterpart of 50 years ago, we can easily see that living conditions and environmental awareness are highly improved and day-to-day life is completely changed. The modern consumer demands information and advice on how to reduce expenses and minimise his impact on the planet. Such demands are a reflection of the general concern about the energy rationalisation that both the population and institutions share today.

This pilot project, installed in Quinta da Portela, was promoted by the company Águas de Coimbra, with the support of Coimbra’s City Hall and with the cooperation of EDP and Lusitâniagas, the main electric and natural gas utilities in Portugal. The most important and distinguishing feature of this project is that it provides the utilities with independent and transparent access to the meters while sharing the same data logging and communication infrastructure that is used to provide each consumer with real time and historical information about their energy profile.

Águas de Coimbra is the company supplying water to the Portuguese city of Coimbra. The company felt the need to reduce costs related to the manual reading of water meters and to improve its customer service by eliminating the practice of estimated invoicing, detecting fraud, and expediting maintenance processes and damage detection. The iMeter solution was chosen since it monitors consumption, concentrates information and works as a communications portal.

Another important issue to the promoter was the maintenance and management of the supply network, which is also accomplished by the iMeter solution with its wireless mesh network that can be expanded to include flow and pressure sensors installed in the network.

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The iMeter solution is composed of a set of metering and control devices fully dedicated to energy efficiency, providing home comfort and safety, while promoting ecological awareness

Modular and scalable architecture
ISA’s approach to the AMI was to create a digital nervous system that connected the utilities to its customers. This digital nervous system’s flexibility allows the utility to start with a small investment in simple urgent solutions that reduce its operational costs through telemetry applications, but that can be built upon as new customer services are added to the original information infrastructure. The flexibility of ISA’s solutions allows a gradual approach, which has enabled Águas de Coimbra to accommodate its investment to new business opportunities, while taking full advantage of its prior investments.

The architecture of the solution is conceptually very simple, comprising concentrators, GPRS/UMTS or ADSL and a wireless mesh network using NetMeter controllers as nodes. The NetMeter controller can use various communication ports (RS232/485, optical or pulse signals) and it can actuate on the meters allowing remote configuration and connect or disconnect the main or section circuit breaker. A very important feature of this wireless communication node is that it interfaces with different meters using their own proprietary protocols.

The iMeter solution additionally comprises a line of products devised to provide the consumer with control over his own water, gas and electricity consumption.

The utility point of view
ISA’s information infrastructure allows utilities to evolve painlessly from a basic telemetry solution to a range of home services that dramatically increase the value of the services to the end customer.

Water and gas utilities access their data through a web portal or an ftp site, while the electricity provider, EDP, had different information needs demanding transparent access to the meters. The beauty of this architecture is that this transparent access was accomplished sharing the same communication infrastructure.

The consumer point of view – submetering
Experts in energy efficiency advocate a combination of improved technology and behavioural shifts as key ingredients to financial and environmental savings. The recent deployment of smart metering systems has demonstrated that appliance control and real time consumption feedback is mandatory to achieve the desired efficiency improvements. The iMeter solution includes several ways of communicating with the consumer, providing the real time feedback that can improve energy efficiency at home. The information can be read on a display in the house, on the television set, on a mobile phone or in any computer, locally or through the internet.

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Solution overview: meter reading and data communication
to the consumer

The iMeter line of products also includes submetering devices, like the DIN rail single-phase and three-phase meters and the iPlugMeter, a device created to monitor the consumption on a single socket, which can be used to obtain data on energy consumption and remote control over each appliance.

The philosophy of the solution is to have modules installed throughout the house, forming a coherent network for monitoring and control, which enables the user to control the consumption in each room and in each plug, be aware of all temperature and humidity data in and outside the building, and finally to act on the various devices, switching on and off plugs according to the needs, in order to maintain comfort and reduce expenses.

Besides the monitoring features, the solution can perform some simple actions to cut waste and loss of resources (e.g. automatic schedule washing machines), manage home appliances (use a cellphone to turn on/off domestic appliances, or SMS if one is at a remote location), eliminate unnecessary consumption (lights or air conditioning in empty rooms, stand-by consumptions), and reduce expenses and the environmental footprint.

The system is easily scalable to include safety, comfort or elderly monitoring features. In fact, the iMeter provides a set of alarms to respond to these concerns, for example for water leak, intrusion or fire, and in addition, for elderly people living alone, the system can detect changes in consumption patterns, thus identifying situations that are not in accordance with the person’s usual behaviours.

Conclusion
One of the most remarkable features of the iMeter is that it is fully centred, directed and designed for the end consumer. Although it provides the utility with direct and transparent access to their meter, it is not focused on the provider company as usually occurs in this kind of system.

This pilot had the main challenge of setting up a solution that would entirely transform the concept of utility metering in Coimbra. This solution is a step ahead as far as modernisation, innovation and effectiveness are concerned, since it addresses the specific needs of the utilities. It creates the conditions for Portugal to take part as a pioneer in multi-utility AMI solutions, similar to its role in the Multibanco concept (a universal platform managing all the financial transactions made in ATM machines shared by all the banks, today allowing an enormous number of added value services), a solution that is innovative and much ahead of its time. Sitting the main utility players at the same table resulted in a universal platform for domestic metering management. Establishing a central nervous system actually opens a new world of possibilities to innovative applications, like prepaid services, intelligent grids with microgeneration cells, remote control of household safety, home automation systems and the monitoring of elderly people’s well-being, among other added value services.