Billing me softly

Smart meter roll-outs are taking place across the UAE. But what are the benefits of engaging with the new ‘smart ecosystem'?
Billing me softly
Ciena Corporation regional MD Mashood Ahmad.
By Utilities Middle East Staff Writer
Sat 26 Dec 2009 04:00 AM

Smart meter roll-outs are taking place across the UAE. But what are the benefits of engaging with the new ‘smart ecosystem'?

Right now, the GCC is standing on the cusp of a ‘smart' revolution. In some respects, the region is even further ahead than other competitor markets as it rolls out a selection of pilot smart metering programmes. While the numbers being deployed here may not be in the same league as in similar deployments in Europe and the US, the UAE, in particular, has been quick to see the benefits that new metering technology will provide both to utilities and the ultimate end-client - the consumer.

While every GCC country is considering implementing regulations with regard to smart metering, the UAE has stolen a lead. Abu Dhabi has already started deploying a range of devices and Dubai will see its pilot programme become operational by April next year.

Earlier this year, the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority (DEWA) ordered around 20,000 meters - 4,500 of which are being installed in the pilot phase - and a full phased implementation is likely to occur based on the devices' performance during the peak loads of next summer. Over the border in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has purchased its first tranche of smart meters, although it has not yet invested in the operating system.

"At present legislation in the Middle East is in a nascent stage," says Rajiv Sawhney, Landis+Gyr's CEO, Middle East. "However, there are directives that point towards protecting the environment and our natural resources, and improving energy efficiency; smart metering being a key enabler of this."

Sawhney believes that on the regulation front, a lot needs to be done to bring the Middle East up to speed in comparison to Europe. "A first step towards legislation would be the privatisation of the energy distribution sector," he explains. "This would increase competition in the industry, optimise processes and bring into focus overall energy management to enable the smart grid."

The Landis+Gyr executive believes that lowering the current electricity subsidies in the region would make the benefits of smart metering more apparent, and the organisation of supply and demand more significant. "Time-of-use applications, demand charges, power factor penalties and serious steps towards influencing consumer behaviour would need to be employed, thereby providing a stable and reliable power supply to consumers," Sawhney argues. "By highlighting the benefits of smart metering we will be one step closer to privatisation and, in effect, smart metering legislation."

The major point that Sawhney alludes to here is the high subsidies dished out by local authorities for the benefit of the consumer. This   problem is one that is only likely to change if painful decision-making is undertaken at a senior level on the one hand, and better education of the consumer or client is undertaken on the other.

Of course, smart metering itself is only a small part of the puzzle. The full benefit of the technology can only really be realised via true integration with the smart grid. "A critical piece of making smart energy grids successful is expanding the concept throughout the power grid, from generation to distribution and to metering at the consumer site," says Mashood Ahmad, regional managing director of network specialist Ciena Corporation, which launched local operations in November via the opening of an office in Abu Dhabi. "Through emerging technologies such as line conditioning, energy storage and advanced metering, demand can be better matched with generation."

"Based on the variety of local conditions as well as the type of end users, multiple technologies are likely required," explains Olivier Laborie, general manager Middle East and India, Electricity, at Itron International. "Itron's open and flexible systems can accommodate any type of installation, as well as the specific environmental and regulatory conditions."

Itron's approach is to adapt and try and use the best method that is tailored to the specific terrain of the local environment. "Moreover, in order to ensure a reliable and economical overall solution for the utility for electricity and water meter data collection. Itron can offer a combination of communication technologies, such as GPRS, PLC, or RF (between meter and concentrator) and GPRS (between concentrator and collection engine)."

How to get the best out of billing

ista Middle East managing director Tarek El Far showcases the benefits of smart submetering

What are you offering the utilities industry?

We are a global leader in consumption-based billing, which focuses on the client paying only for the energy that they consume. In the Middle East, the energy provider provides the energy in bulk to the building or the development and then the project owner has to collect back the money from the tenants.

This is generally done by number of apartments or square feet, which is unfair. Our submetering solution measures the precise consumption of each unit and allocates costs accordingly. In addition, it also combines every commodity - water, chilled water, electricity and gas - into the one bill. We carry out the whole process, from designing the systems and supplying the hardware, to installing, testing commissioning and operating.

What advice do you have for the utilities sector?

In the UAE, we talk a lot about privatisation, which is growing in some areas. But I think there is still room for improvement. I would strongly recommend any utility or energy provider to focus on their core business, and subcontract the secondary business - the reading and billing. By privatising, you get the cutting-edge technology and the cost is lower, so it provides benefits all the way through the chain.

Can you provide an example of a recent major project?

I'm happy to say we won the contract for the Burj Dubai. They needed a fully wireless system, and our solution is fully tailor-made. We have the ability to combine multiple energies, and there was no problem with installation and programming because it's all remote. So there's no need for readings - all the information is sent to our office and we produce the bills. I'm very proud that Emaar chose us for this, which is something that I admit has been challenging - we spent a year and a half evaluating the project.

Why did you win this deal?

The reason why we were picked was because of our radio frequency data concentrator. We're the only company that produces bi-directional tools. Your usual wireless system involves every meter looking for the nearest data concentrator to send the reading. We came up with something that would allow every meter to both send and receive information. This means that every meter acts as a repeater. So you only need one data concentrator for every thousand metres. So if you are on the first floor, you can put your data concentrator on the 10th floor and the signal communicates via the other meters.

"It is likely that future technology will be similar to that in Europe and will use PLC, GPRS and Ethernet communication technologies," agrees Sawhney.

One of the fears from the utilities' perspective has been that the varying types of technology, components and ‘options' used by different manufacturers might lead to communications failures and a breakdown in the system. It's fair to say that the manufacturers are keen to stress that they are working hard to combat this issue, and the term ‘interoperability' is becoming something of a buzzword.

The current communications standards and protocols being used in the Middle East are based on the European IEC standard. While IEC does provide for a certain number of characteristics and functions, it's possible to achieve those characteristics and functions by using different components. The result is that while there may be a selection of meters that are technically compliant to the correct standard, they may not necessarily communicate with one another due to varying components or ‘options'.

"Due to significant investments involved in the deployment of smart metering, utilities do not want to be locked to one technology, one vendor," says Laborie. "They expect their systems to be open and interoperable, providing them with a choice of multiple vendors and permitting continuous technological evolution. For example, in Dubai, the local authorities are working with three manufacturers, whose products all need to work together."

Landis+Gyr's Sawhney is in full agreement. "We are offering open, interoperable technology to the Middle Eastern market," he says. "This is a major step forward in comparison to providing proprietary systems. Our research and development teams work towards interoperability to bring the benefit of choice to utilities and prepare them for the future of energy management."

In a bit to combat this threat, Itron, Landis+Gyr and another manufacturing giant, Iskraemeco, are developing interoperability specifications in the context of a series of tendered projects, where interoperability was a pre-requisite. The plan is that interfaces on the three companies' meters will allow customers to mix and match products from different suppliers.

All three firms intend to make these interface specifications available to all parties willing to develop open and interoperable products, which will facilitate the creation of ‘a true interoperable environment for the future. This standard will be adopted by DEWA.

But there are other challenges as well. "In the GCC, almost all of the utilities supply both water and electricity, therefore they are opting to roll out both water and electricity smart meters at the same time," says Itron's Laborie. "The constraints of the water meter, which has no power supply, require that the communication module operates on battery power, consuming as little energy as possible. The water meter communicates with the electricity meter, which sends the data of both meters to the collection system."

Laborie adds that one of Itron's major advantages is the ability to supply all types of smart meters, and related data collection and data management systems. "This is well illustrated by Itron's recent contract to supply water, electricity, cooling and gas meters - all linked to one central system - in The Pearl Qatar development," he indicates.

Moreover, further difficulties lie ahead in the management of two-way flow for large data packets. As a result, local communication networks must be approved, especially for wireless technology.

"Utilities must focus on managing the billing process in order to save costs," explains Sawhney. "This can be achieved through connect and disconnect applications enabled by smart metering. The behaviour of those who consume large amounts of energy must also change to improve demand side management and meet energy efficiency goals." The Landis+Gyr executive also believes that energy consumers will need to accept and participate in time-of-use tariffs to meet demand side management requirements at both domestic and industrial levels.

The move towards smarter infrastructure and the role that the smart meter plays in that is inevitable. A quick glance overseas reveals that after an initial pilot test, France will roll out 35 million meters over five years, while Itron alone is currently deploying nearly five million smart meters and the associated system at SCE (Southern California Edison).

There is a definite requirement for those utilities that are not yet already on board with this technology to embrace it, not only from a cost perspective, but also from the point of view of efficiencies, and more intelligent billing methods. While there is an initial outlay in terms of capex, any solution that brings such obvious benefits to the utilities and the consumer is a necessity, not an option.

Finding the right software architecture

Microsoft's Jon Arnold explains the firm's new SERA product

Although the size of power systems and the number and needs of customers have grown exponentially, business and technology processes have remained essentially the same, making the utility industry one of the last bastions of the analogue era. Faced with increased consumer awareness, changing requirements and new energy sustainability challenges, utilities around the world are trying to figure out how to bring their networks into the Digital Age.

During the past 20 years one of the top pain points for a Utility CIO has been integration. The Microsoft Smart Energy Reference Architecture (SERA) addresses the major business functions required for the smart energy ecosystem, including metering.

It addresses the smart meter integration processes to Utility customer and distribution systems, meter data management, device "edge" connectivity as well as the ability to unlock the benefits of smart metering by linking smart metering to home energy management applications that can influence consumer energy behavior patterns.

By using SERA as a roadmap for metering deployments, Utilities will inject agility into their architectures so that as smart metering business processes change they will be able to adjust their  solutions much quicker and without the pain and expense they have experienced in the past. While we may never get to a true "plug and play" environment, SERA puts Utilities on a path where they can focus on the business rather than being strangled by technology issues.

For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.