Smart metering: Keeping private matters private

Smart metering: Keeping private matters private

Developments in smart grid technology are proceeding apace, but could concerns about “big brother” utilities derail the idea before it comes to fruition?

You can say one thing for smart meters: The concept of a utility or some other entity having an influence on homeowner electrical demand seems to have driven certain members of the blogosphere off the deep end. The Web is rife with conspiracy theories about sinister ulterior motives for putting such devices in the home. A lot of them have the tone of this one: “They will be able to shut your power OFF anytime they want. There will be rolling blackouts in your future caused only by your supplier wanting to conserve energy or re-route it to large corporations, and nothing else.” Radio commentator Rush Limbaugh has even gotten into the act, suggesting to one of his callers that smart meters might have been deployed as a way of trying to shame people into using less energy.

Then there is this gem from a UK blogger: “The EVIL SMART METER users (sic) the electric wires running around your house/ building upstairs and down ceilings and all, as an antenna that bombards you and your neighbor with high frequency MICROWAVE IRRADIATION (sic) continually, as it communicates with the internet, converting your home/office into a MICROWAVE COOKER switched on 24/7 and we pay for its installment.”

And some bloggers see the data coming out of smart meters as providing them with an unwelcome hobby. Says one, “Personally, I’d rather do something useful rather than pore over traces of energy consumption blips.”

Truth be told, it is not clear just how home consumers will interact with a smart grid. A lot will depend on how and to what degree consumers are comfortable interacting with metering functions. Then there’s the issue of security and privacy.

Obviously, the idea of letting utilities control appliances is controversial. A report released by Accenture, a consulting company, of more than 9,000 consumers in 17 countries worldwide, found about one-third saying they would be discouraged from using energy management programs such as smart metering if doing so gave utilities greater access to their personal energy use. The issue has attracted the attention of not just the DoE but also other governmental entities such as Canada’s Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. Even the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), in a comprehensive report on smart grid privacy, has compiled scenarios that consumers fear if their energy data got into the wrong hands. Consequently there is a move afoot to precisely define and minimize the kind of data sent back to utilities.

For their part, energy utilities are busy working on highly secure software and hardware approaches that protect sensitive data transmitted over the smart grid. At the urging of federal government, they created the National Electric Reliability Council (NERC), which promulgates critical infrastructure protection (CIP) protocols to secure sensitive energy data.

Numerous companies now offer advanced software and hardware products that meet NERC/CIP requirements. One example comes from NICE Systems Ltd. in Israel. It recently developed a situation management platform called the NICE Situator for electric utilities. It helps manage the physical security associated with NERC/CIP requirements.

If consumers are reticent to share energy consumption data, it may be because they don’t know much about how it would be used. A study by GE earlier this year found that only 4% of U.S. consumers had heard of the smart grid, let alone understand the ramifications of demand response. But utilities are moving slowly to better inform people about the benefits of the smart grid.

Indications are they had better get a move on. Some consumers who’ve tried a smart meter claim their only reward was a higher utility bill. This happened in the service area of northern California electric utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which commissioned an independent study of the claims. Its conclusion: The smart electric meters were accurate and higher bills probably occured because of a heat wave. Nevertheless, PG&E’s handling of the situmilation left much to be desired.

All of this has led to the recent formation of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC). Its founding members include consumer electronics and technology companies, retailers, consumer advocacy groups, and utilities. The SGCC aims to educate consumers about the grid’s benefits and share best practices for consumer engagement and empowerment.

In the same vein, the GridWise Alliance is another advocacy group that represents energy supply chain participants ranging from utilities to large tech companies to academia to venture capitalists to emerging technology companies. GridWise president Katherine Hamilton cautions, “We need to calculate investment over time for benefit over time, which is hard because we don’t know how consumers will interact with grid.” She sees the consumer as “the big kahuna” in the smart grid.

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Similarly, makers of smart meter hardware and software are devoting a lot of resources to come up with features that allay consumer fears. One example is a strategic partnership between Google and Microchip Technology Inc. on Google’s PowerMeter Web-based gadget which lets consumers securely access their power consumption data. Microchip created a Reference Implementation that simplifies the task of putting the Google Power- Meter on hardware. The Reference Implementation demonstrates activation, data transmission and status messages using readily available Microchip development tools. It can be used as a template for smart metering designs. It uses Microchip Technology’s 16- and 32-bit microcontrollers, energy management controllers, Ethernet controllers, and radios for ZigBee and embedded Wi-Fi wireless networking.

In a similar vein, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering (IESE) in Germany developed new software to let users read and control power consumption from their mobile phones. Professor Frank Bomartius, deputy director of IESE, says the system controls household appliances based on the anticipated price trend over the next few minutes or hours which the device retrieves from the local utility.

IESE researchers are still negotiating with utilities about exactly how the system will communicate with the supplier. “We want to keep the interface within a narrow margin,” adds Bomartius. “There is no reason why my power supplier should know or influence when I use my heating or cooling, watch TV, or do the cooking.”

Makers of smart grid hardware have been concerned about security as well. But until recently, “security” for smart meter hardware vendors generally meant building in features that would thwart any physical tampering with meters themselves. For example, Freescale Semiconductor earlier this year introduced three advanced MCUs for smart meter applications. Their key features included antitampering measures that detected illegal disconnection from the ac power line. The MCUs include the MCF51EM256 chip for polyphase electricity meters, the MC9S08LH6 chip for single-phase electricity meters, and the MCS9S08GW6 chip for single-phase gas and water meters. The latter two feature the SO8 core with automatic sensor decoding and flow management while the product is in the stop mode, for critical low-flow meter applications.

On the grid

In the meantime, it looks as though most initial improvements in energy and efficiency monitoring will take place within the power grid itself and at utility substations. Much of this is driven by advanced hardware and software components.

On the electric power side, Raritan Inc., a maker of IT infrastructure equipment, devised its PX-1000 power distribution unit (PDU) racks for power management to more easily let data center operators view power activity. Each PDU provides data on voltage, current, power factor apparent and active power, temperature and humidity, and energy consumption in kilowatt- hours. Raritan has also teamed up with RF Code Inc. to integrate the latter’s wireless monitoring system with Raritan’s PDUs.

Similarly, Cisco Systems’ Grid Router 2010 (CGR 2010) and the Connected Grid Switch 2520 (CGS 2520) platform, target electric utility substations. “In electric substations, there are many sensors, meters and other control elements. Tens of millions of these will connect to the network through these routers and switches,” explains Inbar Lasser-Raab, a senior director of network systems at Cisco. “We are already selling quite a lot of products to utilities, and some are using our plain routers and switches and substations because until now, we didn’t have a targeted solution,” she adds.

Efacec Advanced Control Systems, which develops control systems for utilities, is providing an advanced software suite to electric utility Avista Corp. for a $42 million Smart Circuits project in Spokane, and its $38 million Smart Grid Demonstration project in Pullman, Wash. The suite includes the Prism DMS system with fault detection, isolation and restoration, integrated Volt/VAR control, modeling and automating 72 feeders, and the XpertSim distribution system simulator. It also includes distributed generation modeling and the Prism Portal enterprise historian.

It also seems that commercial energy users are less suspicious of smart metering than consumers. So the market for smart metering gear for use by businesses is growing at a healthy clip. An example is Cisco Systems’ EnergyWise architecture, which lets IT operators and facilities measure and fine-tune power use. This system aims to reduce power consumption on all devices connected to a Cisco network, ranging from Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) devices such as IP phones and wireless access points, to IP-enabled building and lighting controllers.

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IBM also will work with Tridium Inc. to develop new technology maximizing energy efficiency in all manner of commercial buildings. Tridium, part of Honeywell’s Automation and Solutions Group, makes software called Niagara and Sedona that facilitate the integration and control of virtually every system in a facility, from HVAC equipment, lighting and generators, to gas pumps, ovens and medical devices. IBM is also teaming up with the United Kingdom’s Hildebrand, offering software that will bring smart metering throughout Britain.

Similarly, AirAdvice Inc., a developer of technologies to monitor and assess building energy performance, has upgraded its software portfolio. It is offering a diagnostic platform known as Building Advice. It automates the generation of energy benchmarking reports for greater energy savings for both building owners and utilities.

On the silicon front

If smart metering can overcome its privacy concerns, there are numerous ICs now hitting the market that can ease the task of designing metering nodes. Smart metering in Europe and Asia tends to focus on power line communications (PLC) as a means of transmitting data. PLC is attractive in those locales because realities such as basement-located meters and hostile RF environments make wireless communication schemes problematic.

One example comes from STMicroelectronics, whose STarGRID ST7590 power line communications (PLC) IC is going into 100,000 smart meters in Spain. The SoC is based on the Prime (PoweRline Intelligent Metering Evolution), a physical and media-access control (MAC) layer standard from the Prime Alliance organization, which is promoting an open and non-proprietary telecommunications architecture that will support automatic metering and smart grids.

The Prime-compliant chip makes use of orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) at rates up to 128 kits/sec. It includes an optimized DSP engine for different modulation schemes and physical-layer services management; a digital 8-bit microcontroller core for system supervision and protocol stack management; a full receiving and transmitting analog front end, and an integrated power amplifier with on-board programmable filtering.

ADD Semiconductor, a founding member of the Prime Alliance, was the first PLC IC company to receive Prime certification for its products. Its PLC devices make use of OFDM technology for 128-kbit/sec communications over the smart grid.

Another firm supplying PLC ICs is DS2 in Spain, recently acquired by chip maker Marvell. The firm is offering a wideband PLC advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) evaluation kit that combines DS2’s wideband PLC hardware operating in the 2 to 12-MHz range with a software package optimized for an AMI.

Smart metering plans in the U.S. are more likely to involve wireless communications rather than PLC because of controversy surrounding possible RF interference from PLC transmitters. Recent developments on the wireless front include those from On-Ramp Wireless Inc. which is using eASIC Corp.’s Nextreme ASICs for On-Ramp’s e-NODE wireless modules for smart metering. eASIC claims that its ASICs help designers reduce development time associated with custom chips.

Similarly, Anaren Inc. has launched its Anaren Integrated Radio (AIR) RF modules, designed applications that include the smart grid. Working with Texas Instruments, it has come up with five AIR family modules that are FCC certified for plug-and-play wireless RF.

One of the other themes in smart grid equipment is a quest for low power. On that note, what is claimed to be the lowest-power wireless MCU is the Si10xx from Silicon Laboratories Inc. Smart meters are among its target markets. It combines a 250- MHz 8051 core, an EZRadioPRO sub-GHz RF transceiver, up to 64 kbytes of flash memory and up to 12-bit ADC.

Finally, there is a recognition that the numerous measurements associated with smart grid monitoring will foster a need for simultaneous sampling and high analog precision. In most cases smart metering demands at least 16-bit precision, argues chip supplier Maxim Integrated Products. Metering chips must be able to measure 220 V signals accurate to within 0.2% with a design margin of 0.06%, or about 0.132 V . In addition, they must handle 6,000-V grid levels. Maxim says the only way to realize 0.132 V accuracy over a 6,000-V range is through use of 16-bit ADCs. Maxim has what it says is the only 16-bit, eightchannel, simultaneous-sampling SAR (successive approximation) ADC in its MA11046/1320/1308 chips. For similar reasons, Microchip Technology supplies the PIC18F87J72 MCU with single-phase smart metering and energy monitoring using a 16-bit/24-bit analog front end.

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Smart metering rollouts

Not many smart meters have been installed, but there have been a slew of agreements for pilot projects this year among major smart meter manufacturers and utilities and systems integrators. For example, Landis + Gyr in Switzerland recently partnered with the Current Group LLC to deliver smart metering to Spain and Portugal. Landis + Gyr will integrate into its meters Current’s hardware and software smart grid products, like data concentrators, intelligent sensors, advanced communications equipment and Current’s OpenGrid software.

In Australia, Sensus is combining its FlexNet AMI equipment with water and energy conservation services from the Fieldforce services subsidiary of UXC. The Smart City demonstration project there will link 9,500 homes to a smart grid by 2013. The Sensus FlexNet is also slated to be used by PECO, a subsidiary of Exelon Corp., as part of a program that encompasses more than 1.6 million electric customers.

In Europe, EnergyICT, an Elster Group Co., will install metering equipment as part of Belgium’s largest integrated smart metering pilot projects. The Belgium utility Eandis will install 4,200 smart electric and gas meters, along with EnergyICT data concentrators and a hosted data management system, as well as Elster’s powerline carrier (PLC) and Coronis communications technologies in three towns there.

Similarly, Siemens will put a new meter meter-reading data-collection system in facilities of the U.K.’s British Gas. Itron and Germany’s Hager Group have joined to use Hager’s eHZ electricity meters and Itron’s smart metering technology while simultaneously co-developing the next generation of modular metering equipment.


ADD Semconductor,
AirAdvice Inc.,
Anaren Inc.,
Arcadian Networks Inc.,
Avista Corp.,
Cisco Systems,
Current Group LLC,
DS2 Co.,
eASIC Corp.,
Efacec Advanced Control Systems,
Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI),
Elster Group,
Exelon Corp.,
Fraunhofer Institute of Technology,
Freescale Semiconductor Inc.,
General Electric Co.,
GridWise Alliance,
The Hager Group,
IBM Corp.,
Itron Inc.,
Landis + Gyr,
Maxim Integrated Products,
Microchip Technology Inc.,
NICE Systems Ltd.,
On-Ramp Wireless Inc.,
Prime Alliance,
Raritan Co.,
RF Code Inc.,

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