Technology options for centralised UK smart energy network

Britain's root and branch revamp of its energy supply system can now begin, after the government announced it will push for a centralised "smart grid" communications network to link some 47 million smart gas and electricity meters by 2020.

Britain's root and branch revamp of its energy supply system can now begin, after the government announced it will push for a centralised "smart grid" communications network to link some 47 million smart gas and electricity meters by 2020.

Work on technical specifications for the network and meters is expected to start immediately and to be finalised in early summer 2010.

The government says that by 2050 virtually all of Britain's electricity will have to come from clean energy sources for it to achieve its target of an 80% cut in carbon emissions.

Key to this goal is the smart grid, a centralised network that will link the new meters to the energy suppliers. There are still different views about what the network should look like and what traffic it should carry.

Simple devices

Mark England, CEO of Sentec, an electronics design firm whose smart meter designs are used in the US and Italy, says centralising the intelligence in the network means the meters themselves could be relatively simple devices. This would make it easier to use applications such as time-of-day billing, he says.

Time-of-day billing is seen as crucial to changing consumers' energy usage patterns.

"This requires quite a sophisticated meter to calculate the bill and send it to the supplier's billing system," says England. But if this computational capacity was put on a server it would make for more efficient management and simpler and cheaper meters.

Grid security

Rick Hanks, head of Accenture UK's smart meter and smart grid practice, says the communications network, data and security must all be considered together. Steve Daniels, head of cyber security and information at database security analysis firm Detica, agrees. He says a single sponsoring group should address the risks early and in a "unified manner".

Energy smart metering is the biggest change to the critical national infrastructure in more than a decade, Daniels says. "But the smart grid could be hacked and confidential customer data might be lost or new vulnerabilities to crime may be created, unless adequate safeguards are put in place."

Network connection

Hanks and England agree that the network is likely to be mostly radio-based, probably using GSM mobile telephony or the more advanced GPRS standard, but some parts of the country do not cost-justify radio so there will have to be an alternative.

Hanks says the government's Digital Britain plan to provide 2mbps broadband internet access to every home by 2012 could play a role, "but not at the consumer level because it is too unreliable".

Hanks believes the smart grid project could use the Digital Britain backbone system to connect the 600,000 sub-stations and then use low-power radio mesh networks to link them up with homes, offices and factories.

John O'Farrell, executive vice-president of Silver Spring Networks, says the challenge is to reach every electrical device in the UK securely and reliably for no more than a few pence per month, per household.

"Existing networks such as mobile or broadband will not meet the need alone," he says, adding that US and Australian energy suppliers to over 40 million homes have opted for "wireless mesh" technology, which was specifically designed for smart grid communications.

A lack of spectrum in the 780Mhz frequency band has prevented communications suppliers from considering wireless mesh for the UK. But an Ofcom consultation now underway may result in the required spectrum being freed up.

Technology testing

Meanwhile, Arqiva, a communications infrastructure and services company, plans to test a long-range radio-based communications platform from US-based smart grid specialist Sensus. Sensus's FlexNet technology already serves more than over four million smart end points in the US and Canada.

However, the smart grid is also an opportunity for the UK to introduce wide-scale use of power line communications, which offers up to 100mbps over the electricity supply grid.

This could put energy suppliers in a position to compete with traditional communications firms.

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