Not-so-smart metering: an end-user’s point of view

June 12th, 2014, Published in Articles: Vector

 

Smart metering, we have been told, allows the utility to read the meter remotely and the end-user to monitor and control energy consumption. The reality, however, is somewhat less appealing.

Never having had such a facility available before makes one fairly ignorant of what can be expected and, as is usual in these cases, you don’t know what you want until you don’t have it. The local municipality recently installed a “smart meter” on my property. What did I get and what would I like to have had? Just the realisation that utilities should consult with customers before installing new facilities.

The installation

I was surprised one day by the arrival of two technicialns who had come to install a new meter at my home. I had heard about the programme, but there had been no advance warning or notification from the municipality that meters were being installed in my area, or by which company they were being installed. The team was very efficient, completing the job within less than 30 minutes.

I was handed a customer interface unit (CIU) and was given basic instructions on how to use it. No handbook or user’s manual was provided, and the team left without providing a number to contact in case of problems.

I was enchanted with this new source of information on my electricity consumption and spent the next few minutes scrolling through the screens. The CIU provided the following basic information (see Fig. 1):

  • Instantaneous power in kW.
  • kWh consumption to time of reading for daily basis.
  • Daily, weekly, monthly and yearly kWh totals.
  • Log of events such as failure.
Fig. 1: Information provided by the customer interface unit.

Fig. 1: Information provided by the customer interface unit.

As no manual was provided, I was unable to interpret all of the symbols on the screen, which left me feeling a bit ignorant. The CIU worked for approximately ten minutes before giving up the ghost and posting an error message stating that communication with the meter had been lost.

As no contact number had been provided, I was at a loss as to whom to approach: the installer, the meter manufacturer or the municipality. E-mails to some of these remained unanswered.

Fortunately, I obtained the name of the project manager from a contact at the municipality, and proceed to tell my tale of woe to the party concerned.

A team of five experts was duly dispatched to investigate the problem, and replaced the faulty communications cassette and the associated CIU. After requesting a user manual, I was told that none were available and that I had to be satisfied with an oral run-through of the facilities of the CIU.

The unit worked happily for several weeks and, as it had been installed in my home office, I watched the totals accumulating and the instantaneous reading varying as different loads switched in and out.

Sadly, the unit failed again, displaying the same “lost communication” message, and I once more turned to my contact. A single technician was subsequently dispatched to replace the unit. This was duly done and the faulty cassette and CIU replaced. The system worked fine for another few weeks until failure occurred again. I was away from home at the time and only detected the problem seven days later. I again called for help and am still awaiting a response at the time of writing.

I understand that the problem may well be in the communication system between the meter and the CIU, but I can also imagine the response of a non-technical customer, whose first reaction would very likely be that the meter was faulty, and the readings should be questioned.

I also noticed that the meter was still being read manually. On the querying the meter reader, I was told that the change-over was several months away. No notification had been received from the municipality on the programme or on the proposed changeover dates to remote meter reading. The only information I received was in the adjusted readings on my electricity account. I still don’t know when the meter will be read remotely and when I should stop allowing meter readers or their doppelgangers onto my property.

What does the smart meter provide?

The meter installed provides a comprehensive set of metering, monitoring and control functions – not all of which are available to the end-user [1].

Metering

The meter offers full four-quadrant measurement of active, reactive and apparent power, including demand registers, as follows:

  • Incoming kWh.
  • Incoming kvar.
  • Outgoing kWh.
  • Outgoing kvar.

As a domestic user, I hardly see the value of measuring kvar. Outgoing power reading is also interesting. Is the municipality preparing itself for net-metering in the future? One of the alarm messages indicated export of power to the grid, (see Fig. 2) and I am still trying to find this source of power generation on my property, as I would very much like to activate it again.

The unit also provides for the metering of up to three independent energy load profiles individually configured to address all meter logging requirements. The meter can also store load profile data for up to four M-Bus multi-utility devices. Each device has its own load profile configuration. This means that the meter can either monitor three loads itself or it can act as metering hub for up to four other metering devices.

It provides a customisable time-of-use calendar managing up to two calendars (active and latent) to address residential and low-end commercial configurations. This is no doubt a useful function if the municipality ever decides to introduce time-of-usage metering on residential properties.

Load management

The unit provides for remote and local control on the main contactor and additional smart switches (smart plugs, appliance control devices via the home area network wireless communication module and 5A relays). Loads can be controlled by the meter through definition of power limiting thresholds and internal calendars for scheduled disconnections and reconnections. Remote dynamic control on a group of loads and an emergency load shedding operation is possible. This appears to be useful feature, enabling the customer to control geysers and pool pumps or to limit consumption during peak demand periods (i.e. activation based on metering calendar). It would need 5A relays but these could be installed by the supplier on a customer installation as an additional feature.

Network quality monitoring is possible, providing improved monitoring of power quality information such as instantaneous voltage, current and frequency data and voltage quality data (sag/swell, average voltage, voltage loss). Instantaneous power quantity monitoring (active, reactive, apparent) is also a feature.

Payment

Fig. 2: CIU error message indicating export of electricity to the grid.

Fig. 2: CIU error message indicating export of electricity to the grid.

The prepayment feature is compatible with the STS standardisation for prepayment tokens, and offers interoperability with any STS compatible prepayment vending system. The unit is capable of two-way, real-time prepayment operation with token transfer processed directly from the vending system to the meter through the AMI communication channel.

Communication

The smart meters are designed with a modular architecture to accommodate two field swappable modules integrating various communication technologies (PLC, GPRS, Mesh RF, Zigbee, MBus wireless, etc.). This translates into easy adaptability for network interfaces: wide/metropolitan area network (WAN/MAN), local/field area network (LAN/FAN) and home area network (HAN) as requirements and technologies evolve. The meter brochure states that “they are designed to provide two-way communication with advanced information to the utility and end-user”, but communication with the end-user seems to be limited to the remote controlled load relays and the CIU via the Zigbee HAN. There is no other channel provided for the customer to access information.

The end-user’s requirements

Are all these functions necessary? Looking at the facilities available on the meter, there are many functions that I as an end-user would like to have access to, and which I could use to great benefit.

So what would I have liked to see?

The main requirement would be the ability to receive real-time information from the meter on an independent device (laptop, PC, tablet, etc.), in a form which can be stored in a standard software suite and processed to suit the customer’s requirements. It would also be nice to have developed software available to do this.

Time-based consumption profiles

The system provides a reading of instantaneous power over the HAN to the CIU, but this is not stored and cannot be displayed. Information on peak power demand at any time would help schedule time-of-use of appliances and machinery in the residence. It would also help decrease the total load on the installation. I have an old house with some strange allocations of sockets and I often get an overload trip on circuit breakers, and would like to see how often this happens when I am not home.

I can already see from the daily readings which day is washing day and on which days the gardener works. With winter approaching, I would like to see when heaters are switched on, etc. The daily profile provides useful information such as when lights are switched on etc.

Daily, weekly and monthly aggregates are useful for comparing with electricity accounts and to track consumption over the long term.

Local load control

Another feature I would like to have access to is the local load control, which seems to be a feature of the meter. It would be very convenient, for instance, to control geysers, pool pumps and other energy guzzlers based either on time schedule or load limiting (combined with ToU data). This could be marketed by the municipality as an add-on at a premium.

Time-of-use metering data

It would also be useful to have notification of onset of different ToU metering periods, and the tariff applicable during the period. No doubt when ToU metering is introduced, there will be variable tariffs depending on seasonal and daily demands, and this information could be put to good use (the CIU has a tariff class indicator, so this information is already available to the customer).

It would appear that the municipality did not consult customers on what they require from smart meters and, by doing so, have missed an opportunity to generate extra revenue for customised installations and to gain the co-operation and involvement of end-users in implementing energy saving and demand side management at residential premises.

Whatever features are provided on the CIU, I would at least have liked to have had a manual describing its operation and all the features.

Although the meter installed is classed as “smart”, I am afraid that this designation can only be applied from the municipality’s point of view, while “smartness” is very limited for the customer.

The novelty of the CIU will, I am afraid, soon wear off as the information cannot be transferred to a permanent location (every time the unit fails, the information is lost when a new unit is installed). The main benefit I would like to see is having the meter read on the same date every month, giving a fixed metering period, and not having to open my gate to meter readers.

References

[1] Itron: “Modular smart meter Em420i”, www.itron.com/PublishedContent/EM420i EN 2002-14.pdf

Related Articles

  • South African Government COVID-19 Corona Virus Resource Portal
  • Ministerial determinations propose 13813 MW of new-build by IPPs, none by Eskom
  • Crunch time for South Africa’s national nuclear company, Necsa
  • Dealing with the elephant in the room that is Eskom…
  • Interview with Minerals & Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe