By Ferry Cserép

Continuon is continuously looking to offer its customers the highest quality and most efficient service. One of the initiatives to achieve this is to bring an Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) system to residential and small business customers, the InfoStroom project (Figure 1).

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Figure 1 - Meter instillation situation
in The Netherlands

Continuon expressed its interest in installing an AMR system in the late 1990s, long before the liberalisation of the Dutch domestic energy market and the issuing of the EU Energy Efficiency Directive. The goal was to have as many business processes as possible benefit from smart metering, including processes for billing, move-in/move-out, and supplier switch. Hence, when building the business case for its AMR system, Continuon initially focused on the fact that with smart meters in place, existing business processes would become more efficient. However, the business case not only reflected that existing processes would improve, but that new processes could be introduced, such as fraud prevention and power quality monitoring, improving the expected return on investment of the project. In addition the business case showed that the inclusion of remote reading of other utility meters such as gas, water and heat, whilst using the same infrastructure, would have a dramatic positive impact on the business case.

METER FUNCTIONALITY
After building the business case, Continuon started compiling a list of requirements related to the meter functionalities, and stated that “the meter had to be smarter then the utility, acting as the sensor at the edge of the grid.” A rich set of functions was defined, although it was understood that not all the functions could directly be utilised by the existing business processes. However, the company expected that over time, the legacy business processes could and would be adapted and new business processes would be put in place. In addition to this, the vision of Continuon was never limited to AMR only: Continuon wanted the new system to become the foundation of the future smart grid.

Continuon defined the meter functionality as follows:

  • Digital storage of meter reads
  • 4 tiers (up to 8 periods per day), with time-of-use calendar and special days
  • Variable billing cycle (day, week, month)
  • Internal clock
  • Switch (remote controllable)
  • Prepay register
  • Data path for other meters
  • Load profile storage
  • Outage detection
  • Voltage measurement
  • Phase detection
  • Power factor.

The strong emphasis on this rich meter functionality in the late 1990s means that today, Continuon can comply quite easily with the proposed functionalities of the meter that are required by the energy directorate of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs:

  • Measure consumption (active forward/reverse in two tiers)
  • Conditional switching (load shedding/code red scenarios)
  • Consumption threshold set up (remote connect/ disconnect)
  • Grid quality monitoring (voltage/outages)
  • Communication module (PLC or GPRS).

COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY
For each AMR system, one of the key factors to success is communication. The information gathered needs to be reliably and securely collected in a central location. Prior to deciding upon the communication solution to be used, Continuon described in the technological requirements that there needed to be an ability to run the system using different or multiple communication technologies. There are many solutions available, but the solution that is regarded as being the most reliable, secure and cost effective today might not be the most optimal fit for tomorrow. With the open platform approach opted for by Continuon, it remains possible today to switch between communication systems. Today, the completed pilots and the scheduled rollout are based upon PLC technology, for the following reasons:

PLC is cheaper than GPRS

PLC technology is self-controlled (DGO), in case of GPRS dependency on price level and deployment of mobile operators (GPRS to 2013)

PLC supports more functionality, such as code red, alarm monitoring, IEOL and phase detection

PLC causes no extra RF ‘radiation’ PLC is not too slow.

PLATFORM REQUIREMENTS
Beside the above mentioned meter functionalities and the requirement that the AMR system should support multiple communication technologies, a number of additional requirements for the platform have been developed. These requirements were needed mainly to ensure that the investments made in the late 1990s would support the long term vision of IT infrastructures (SOA, web services, open standards, flexibility, agility). Continuon was well aware that techniques and tools used in the field can and will change, but that business processes and software applications used by them and other, dependent market parties could also very well change. This constant evolution of techniques made Continuon realise that the AMR solution needed to be completely flexible.

Some of Continuon’s requirements were:

  • Ability to support meters from multiple vendors to avoid vendor lock-in
  • Ability to support meters for gas, water and heat in addition to the electricity meter
  • Single point of management to ease day-to-day operations
  • Layered architecture, whereby each layer can easily be replaced to ensure an agile, adaptive infrastructure. This requirement underlined the need to work with common, open protocols
  • Seamless integration with the existing SAP infrastructure used by Nuon, while being flexible enough to support a fast changing IT landscape.

SOLUTION: REDUCTION OF COMPLEXITY WITH THE VIRTUAL METER
Continuon opted for a solution whereby the complexity in the field is hidden by a layer of ‘universal middleware’ (Figure 2). The middleware layer provides services such as automatic data collection and management. The network of smart meters is virtualised, with the data presented in such a format that it is able to communicate directly with the SOA layer, e.g. the enterprise service bus, of the grid operator, the supplier and other third parties interested in and authorised to receive this data. The universal middleware layer is provided by Netinium, a Dutch software solution provider. For the first phase of the rollout, two meter vendors were selected to provide the smart meters, Echelon and Iskraemeco.

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Figure 2 - System architecture

With this infrastructure, Continuon is not dependent on any specific type of meter, and potential vendor lock-in, financial risks, technical risks and business risks. In addition, the open, layered infrastructure with Netinium as middleware layer has already proven its agility when being confronted with regulatory changes.

REGULATORY CHALLENGES
After the start of the Infostroom project, several drivers from the Dutch government ensured that AMR became a ‘must do’. These drivers, such as the European Service Directive and the need to reduce C02 emissions, motivated the Dutch government to issue a policy on the rollout of smart meters. Several projects and task forces have been created since then. Kema has been involved in building a cost/benefit analysis for this project. The NEN is developing the Dutch standard for the smart meter (NTA 8130) and all the market players have been consulted. These developments have affected the timescale of rollout of the InfoStroom project, but did not affect the technical solution that was already built and tested.

On the contrary, the multi-service, multi-vendor solution, based on common, open protocols already proved to be adaptive enough to respond to these ever changing requirements. In addition to this, the experiences gained from Continuon have provided valuable input not only for the development of smart meters, but also for creating the architecture of the AMR infrastructure that enables and authorises access to data/ information, allowing for standardised service delivery among the market parties.

THE FUTURE
After concluding several pilots successfully, the InfoStroom project is now being rolled out on a wider scale. The infrastructure has now become company standard for AMR at Continuon and in due course, all the 2.7 million electricity meters and 2 million gas meters managed by Continuon Netbeheer will be smart ‘virtual private meters’. The middleware layer virtualises the smart meters ensuring the business applications only ‘see’ one type of virtual meter, regardless of the type of meters being used. Remote meter reading, profiling, switching and other additional functionality will then be available on all meters, whereby the remotely collected information will be standardised and centralised, using the Netinium solution, to be made available for business processes of suppliers and other interested parties.

The NTA and new regulations meant that requirements and specifications constantly had to be adjusted, but by using a middleware layer this will not affect the entire platform. The world ‘below’ the middleware layer can change (meters), and the world ‘above’ the middleware layer can change (IT infrastructure), but the middleware layer will absorb this as pivot point, ensuring that, in the longer term, investments can be secured and the implementation will remain successful.