Smart Metering – the next Y2K bonanza?

At a number of smart metering and smart grid conferences that I’ve been attending recently, it’s be interesting to note the number of fifty and sixty-something consultants who are looking suspiciously like cats who are overdosing on cream.  What has brought the smiles to their faces is their belief that the rush to deploy smart meters is considerably ahead of any solidification of standards, or even an understanding of what to do with them.  That means that there will be lots of work to try and make the current generation of meters work, only to do it all over again in five years time, when the industry finally decides what the standards should be.  If that’s how it pans out, then smart metering may pay their pensions in the same way that Y2K worries provided a happy retirement for a previous generation of engineers.   It might be in their interest, but it’s a game-plan that is definitely not in the best interest of the industry.

Within the more general subject of smart grid, media coverage is centring on smart meters and the impact they will have on the consumer.  That’s resulting in some aggressive battles between competing standards groups, a growing level of negative publicity for utilities that are being portrayed as greedy ogres trying to get more money out of the consumer, and the appearance of ever more flamboyant futurologists who believe that the utilities will control all of the appliances in our homes.

That level of noise has the effect of making smart meters look as if they are the lynchpin of the smart grid.  Hence every utility is rushing to deploy them, backed by willing legislators showering them with stimulus funds.   It’s not difficult to see why we’re in this topsy-turvy state.  Underlying improvements to the grid don’t have a direct impact on consumers, or only do when the lack of them means that the consumer’s power disappears.  Which makes it boring.  In contrast, home automation offers the science fiction vision of devices that turn themselves on or off to minimise our energy bills and save the world.  But does it help the industry?

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Who owns Smart Energy?

There’s a lot of debate within the industry about who owns Smart Energy.  Is it the utilities?  Is it the consumer?  Will it be Google?  Until now, nobody has spotted who the real owner is, but at last it can be revealed – it’s the ZigBee Alliance.  They quietly trademarked the phrase “Smart Energy” in the US last December.  So if you make any Smart Energy product using any form of wireless, it may be time to get your cheque book out.

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Smart Energy, mHealth and the Chocolate Factory

Although they may seem strange bedfellows, both the mHealth industry the smart metering industries (both favourite children of the technology world), are facing the same problem.  Both are moving from a world of almost no data to data overload of a level they never imagined, even in their worst nightmares.  Whether it’s from an annual health check or a visit from the meter reader, both are used to getting one data point per customer per year.  The advent of connected sensors means that is changing to anything up to one reading per second.

It’s a bit like the case of a child who has hitherto only been allowed chocolate on Christmas Day.  Now they’re being led into a chocolate factory and told they can eat as much as they want.  The inevitable result is a very happy child for a few hours, until they’re violently sick.  At which point they either vow never to eat another chocolate, or learn to treat it in a more sensible manner.

Today the medical industry and energy utilities are being shown the doors of the chocolate factory.  We have yet to see how they behave once they enter it.  Some may emerge as triumphant Charlies, but others risk becoming the commercial equivalent of Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt.

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Hacking Smart Meters, Single Chips and Updating

This week was an interesting one for smart metering announcements.  Accent – a Franco-Italian semiconductor design house announced their smart meter on a chip, prompting Jesse Berst of Smart Grid News to enthuse that the “Smart Metering Business has just changed for ever“.  Sorry Jesse, but I don’t think so.  Elsewhere, in Providence, Rhode Island, New England hackers were convening at QuahogCon to discuss the security of standards.  The two announcements provided a good demonstration of the gulf between the promoters of smart metering and the reality of the state of the standards they intend to use.  In the same week, ZigBee closed its call for comments on the Technical requirements Document for its Smart Energy Profile, giving the impression that the standard is not far from completion.

The gulf between the enthusiasts and realists is wide.  It is worrying that much of the industry is rushing blindly towards deployment, with little understanding of the risks and what can be done to mitigate them. 

One of key mantras I keep on hearing repeated when security of the smart meter is raised is “why would anyone bother to hack it?”  Josh Wright, talking about ZigBee security at QuahogCon hit the nail on the head when he answered that.  “As an attacker, ZigBee lets me interact with the real world – that’s exciting.  I can interact with a dam, or natural gas distribution lines.  We’re looking at a wireless protocol that lets us interact with real things in the real world – it’s not just credit cards.”  The industry forgets the excitement that comes from “because I can” and “real things”  And it only needs a few people doing that to fuel scare stories that will kill the whole industry.

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British Gas – Smart Meters get real

Yesterday’s announcement by British Gas that they are about to deploy 2 million smart gas meters is probably the most important move that the smart energy market has seen.  There are two things that make it significant.

The first is the fact that British Gas understands data.  Back in 1995 they were the first corporation in the world to roll out GSM data connectivity to all of their service engineers.  They’ve kept on quietly pushing the leading edge of technology ever since.

The second is that they are a major player in a market that has been deregulated for many years.  They know that they need to persuade customers to stay with them and that those customers have a choice.

Both are skills that are markedly lacking in many of the other trials we have had around the world.  If anyone can prove that smart metering will work it’s probably going to be British Gas.  In a week where an Associated Press report poured scorn on the security of smart meters, and shortly after the PG&E billing fiasco, the industry needs some good, solid evidence of where smart metering really is.  Compared to this deployment, everything else may look like rank amateurism.  This will be the one to watch.

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Smart Energy & Strange Alliances

It’s been an odd month for Smart Energy, or at least for the wireless standards that are tackling connectivity around the home.  If you were to go back six months, then, at least in the U.S., the general consensus would have been that ZigBee had the market tied up.  It had the only profile with “Smart Energy” in its name and was winning the PR battle hands down.

Within the major working groups, things weren’t quite so clear.  NIST, which has been trying to herd the wireless cats into some semblance of order started a more thorough analysis of just what existed, which saw an increased emphasis on other members of the IEEE 802 standards family, bolstering the fortunes of Wi-Fi (in its 802.11 incarnation) and Bluetooth (in its 802.15.1-2005 form).  And it made its preferences clear about a need for IP support.  But the status quo didn’t seem to shift very much as a result.

Then, last month, Bluetooth emerged from its normal mode of PR silence to announce the formation of a Smart Energy Study Group.  The fact that Emerson, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of home HVAC devices was one of the sponsors for the group caused some noticeable shivers in the Smart Energy marketplace.

This week, there were more ripples, when Wi-Fi and ZigBee announced their Alliance of Alliances to jointly provide an in-home solution for Smart Energy.  The Twitterati thought it significant, but what was behind it?  Is it deadly rivals joining forces against a common enemy, or is there more going on? 

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