US smart grids deserve a revamp that makes unlicensed spectrum and proprietary implementation a thing of the past - Wirepas

US smart grids deserve a revamp that makes unlicensed spectrum and proprietary implementation a thing of the past

Alan Sillito
The challenges of aging, proprietary mesh networks in the US smart metering industry are no secret. There is an urgent need for more sustainable, advanced communication solutions for smart grid systems merging dedicated spectrum benefits with standardization in an affordable manner.

The global shift towards smart grid systems is not just a technological evolution, it's a mandatory step to accommodate the increased demand and intermittent electricity generation from renewable sources. In this journey, the adoption of smart metering systems holds a key position. Industrialized countries have embraced this transformation, with many major utilities entering their second or even third wave of smart metering projects. The United States, marked by its diverse and challenging political and environmental landscape, is no exception to this transformative wave. 

In a constantly changing regulatory environment, where policies evolve to support real-time metering and other customer benefits, the US faces unique challenges. The nation's infrastructure capabilities are struggling to keep pace with increased volatility and demand, adoption of emerging technologies and compliance with policy settings. State governing bodies are striving to align policies with the rapidly changing energy market and changes are needed to create a dynamic landscape. 

According to Berg Insight, over 156 million smart meters will be installed in the United States by 2027, with a penetration rate of 93% and similar penetration Canada. However, this apparent near saturation doesn't imply that the job is almost complete. Out of the estimated 3,000 utility companies in the US, some are still experiencing their first wave of smart meters, primarily addressing meter reading use cases without fully realising their potential. 

With each wave of deployment, the use cases of smart meters evolve, presenting opportunities to address advances in communication technology, the key enabler for smart energy systems and successful smart metering deployments. 

Across the globe, smart electricity meter rollouts use various methods to establish the direct data communications between smart meters and utility head-end systems. While early rollouts used power lines, modern deployments tend to favour wireless technology for its scalability and ease of implementation. Common methods include direct cellular communication using 4G LTE CAT-M or point-to-point private radio. In North America, most smart meters are connected using wireless mesh-based protocols over license-free radio spectrum to an access point which completes the internet exchange to the utility head-end system. 

These mission-critical mesh networks have proven to be resilient, reliable, and require minimal maintenance. However, many are nearing the end of their life cycle, in need of a tried and trusted replacement that can meet the future demands of an intelligent grid with real-time pricing and reading, local energy production and storage. 

Historically, vendor-specific proprietary implementations of short to medium range mesh radio protocols have created concerns about premature obsolescence, particularly as subject matter experts supporting these legacy protocols age out of the workforce. The industry is now grappling with challenges related to interoperability, dependency on equipment suppliers, and the risks associated with maintenance and coverage of large smart meter deployments over long time periods, typically 10 to 15 years. 

One strategy for the industry to address this situation is to consider a standardised implementation of a mesh protocol. Multiple standards can also potentially be combined within each meter. This approach forms a hybrid network, taking advantage of the benefits offered by each wireless technology. 

Wi-SUN is an example of an open standard for mesh networks harnessing unlicensed spectrum. This technology is being considered as a standardised mesh protocol addressing interoperability and roadmap consistency across vendors. However, thus far the industry is still hampered by proprietary implementations of this standard, negating interoperability, and hindering progress towards off-the-shelf optimised hybrid solutions. In addition, Wi-SUN shares the spectrum with many other technologies. 

In recent years, the US has taken a leadership role in adopting private networks that use dedicated spectrum for utility use cases. Multiple organisations are offering private LTE services focused on smart grid infrastructure applications. This has drawbacks too, not least due to the high and complex licensing fees of the cellular industry.  

It’s time to take a fresh approach to the prevailing challenges. One technology addressing the current challenges is the novel Wirepas mesh protocol. It presents a high-performance, ultra-reliable connectivity that combines the benefits of dedicated uncongested spectrum with crucial standardisation. Based on the recently introduced non-cellular 5G standard NR+, built ground up for large-scale, demanding industrial applications, Wirepas technology incorporates the assurances of 5G at an affordable cost. The technology is already proven in the largest smart metering network in the world, connecting more than a million smart meters in a single network, with an SLA of 99.9%. That’s how every future-proof smart metering network should perform.

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