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Technology | August 2013

Transparent network with smart meters

Smart metering helps discoms automate, conserve and monitor loads, doing its bit for energy security. An overview of the technology that some states plan to pilot.

Power companies worldwide have begun replacing their analogue meters to electronic smart meters. This allows them to monitor consumption practically in real time and thus conserve energy. These companies also get benefited from better grid load planning and lower costs.

Time to get out of the dark
For a very long time, nearly all electricity customers and suppliers around the world have suffered from a huge lack of information. Consumers know nearly nothing about their electricity consumption habits. The suppliers have limited information about the state of their grids at any given time, including basic information, as whether loads in certain sections are dangerously high, or whether the supply voltage has dropped dramatically in particular areas. That's because data from electricity meters generally doesn't become available until months after power is actually consumed, and such information only shows the sum of the electricity used over a specific period of time.

Having such data made available in something closer to real time would conserve resources, as consumption could then be flexibly adjusted, prices for consumers lowered or raised in line with peak loads, and power generation capacity stepped down when less electricity is needed.

Meters capable of such real-time data delivery were not available to the average consumers until recently, but now, more and more power suppliers are installing smart meters that electronically measure electricity consumption. Smart meters don't just substitute a digital dis¡play for mechanical cogs, they also automatically forward consumption data to a control centre and have a feedback channel. Among other things, this enables suppliers to send price signals to customers, who can then reduce consumption during peak times in order to save money.

The near-real-time transmission of data from households, special contract customers, and the power distribution structure gives us the kind of insight we need as to what's going on in the grid. This allows a supplier to make more precise forecasts of peak load times, and thus plan more efficiently. Residents in Switzerland were the first to know exactly how much electricity they're using every month, instead of having to estimate fees, and then receiving a huge bill at the end of the each cycle. So living in the dark about one's own electricity consumption will soon no longer be an issue with the dawn of the smart meters. The benefits that smart energy meters offer utility companies go far beyond improved grid load planning. For one thing, the manual reading of conventional meters is subject to errors that generate additional costs, such as the need for second readings.

No more flying blind
Most smart meters are now being used in highly developed countries, with dozens of projects currently underway in the US and Europe. Direct economic benefits are generated in such nations mainly through a decrease in blackouts and efficiency gains in service processes. By installing around 30 million smart meters with feedback channels, Italian energy supplier ENEL, for example, has been able to automatically carry out 210 million meter readings. The initial investment of Ç2.1 billion can be amortised relatively quickly through savings of around Ç500 million per year, while service costs per customer and year have been reduced from Ç80 to Ç50.

EnBW ODR, which supplies electricity to the region east of Stuttgart, Germany, is replacing its conventional meters with Siemens along with the complete meter data management system. Ninety per cent of the company's new meters communicate with a central server hat processes the huge amounts of data, with most of this data transfer occurring via power line communication in other words, the grid itself.

Siemens prepared itself well for such new types of cooperation models for smart metering systems with its move to acquire US-based eMeter, one of the world's leading providers of meter data processing services. By 2030, global electricity production is expected to increase by 63 per cent over its 2008 level to approximately 33,000 terawatt hours (TWh). Whereas today's poorer countries are expected to expand their annual production by around four per cent, electricity production in the most developed regions will grow by only about 1.3 per cent per year.

Time for smart meters
Completely new grid structures are now being set up throughout large parts of India and China, and many regions are now being supplied with electricity for the very first time. A total of 150,000 villages in India alone are being hooked up to the main grid over the next few years. As smart metering technology will be used here from the start, integrating it into existing systems won't be a problem.

More developed markets like Brazil, for example, where the vast majority of households already have electricity will have to modernise their systems to reduce electricity theft and increase supply reliability. Smart meters will thus also be installed in many areas in these markets. Finally, in many of the most developed countries, legislation enacted as part of electricity market deregulation is leading to the rapid introduction of smart meters. The European Union has an energy efficiency and services directive that stipulates that all conventional meters be replaced by smart meters by 2020. Indeed, all new buildings built today have to have such meters.

Smart meters represent just a small component of a much larger project  the smart grid. With this energy network, it will be easier to incorporate renewable sources of energy. In addition, electricity storage will one day play a major role, and with improved network load planning, it will be possible to reduce the occurrence of the sort of major blackouts that have caused havoc in not only Europe and the US, but also in India over the last few years. Smart meters have laid part of the foundation for this flexible network of the future.

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