Smart grids are energy networks that can automatically monitor energy flows and adjust to changes in energy supply and demand accordingly. When combined with smart metering systems, smart grids reach consumers and suppliers by providing information on real-time consumption. With smart meters, consumers can adapt – in time and volume – to their energy usage to different energy prices throughout the day, saving money on their energy bills by consuming more energy in lower price periods.
It's important to distinguish between smart grids and utility meters. Traditional electrical meters only measure total consumption, and thus provide no information on when the energy was consumed at each metered site. Smart grid technologies provide a way of measuring site-specific information, allowing utility companies to introduce consumption prices based on the time of day, season and site. On the other hand, consumers can better understand their consumption behavior and plan their budget better by tailoring, moderating and overall better understanding of peak consumption period behaviors versus routine consumption behavior.
In Europe, the common technology used for smart grids and metering are power line carriers (PLC) and general packet radio services (GPRS). In the US, RF MESH solutions are used in approximately 90% of smart grid deployment. The remaining 10% use PLC and GPRS technologies. Is one technology better than the other? What other options are out there? Let's see:
Power Line Carriers (PLC)
What makes PLC technology attractive to smart grid deployments are their low cost which in turn enables higher deployment margins for utility companies? Scalability is a great issue for PLC, and every additional power point or site poses a challenge. Harsh environments are also a challenge here, and extreme temperatures do take a toll on the overall operability of PLC-based solutions. There is a new PLC standard, referred to as PRIME standard, which offers greater scalability and G3 PLC. This in turn gained global interest by IEEE, ITU and IEC.
A second generation 2-2.5G cellular network-based technology, GPRS utilized spare timeslots in unused TDMA, GSM channels. Its cellular based approach makes it relevant only for locations where cellular infrastructure is available – usually within urban cities or short to mid-range circumference areas from any deployed cellular infrastructure.
LTE – Commonly Known as 4G
4G LTEis a standard for wireless communication of high-speed data for mobile phones and data terminals. It is based on the GSM/EDGE and UMTS/HSPA network technologies, increasing the capacity and speed using a different radio interface together with core network improvements. LTE provides peak downlink rates of 300Mbit/s and peak uplink rates of 75Mbit/s. LTE is the natural upgrade path for carriers with both GSM/UMTS networks and CDMA2000 networks. Since LTE is the technology adopted by most operators worldwide, it's probably the preferred option for smart grid solutions.
RF MESH is the most commonly used technology in the US. The reason for that is the wide spectrum ability that allows for devices employing at least 50 channels to use license-exempt frequencies of 902-928 MHz with 1W maximum transmitted power. In Europe, however, there is a limitation of a single channel per device in 868MHz with a 25mW power transmission. This limitation restricts the communication range between devices.
4G Mobile MESH
This technology basically takes the best of all worlds. This technology takes the high-speed data for mobile phones and combines it with all MESH added values which include:
Lack of a need for any existing communications infrastructure
Triple layer security –ensuring that all collected data and information is securely transmitted back to local headquarters
Flexibility and scalability- increase or decrease the architecture and number of units as needed. Frequency ranges can be configured according to specifications.
WiFi and WiMAX
The added values provided by LTE and 4G-based MESH has reduced the interest in WiFi based options. A typical WiFi communications range can extend to approximately ten of meters indoors for 2.4 GHz and less for 5GHz. This makes building penetration a great challenge.
Collaboration between Technologies may be the Best Option Yet
As we can see, each technology carries its own added-value as well as drawbacks. While 4G, LTE, MESH based technologies do provide the greater added value for the consumer, it is on the mid-range cost spectrum, and may be more suitable for harsher environments, N-LOS and no existing communications infrastructure surroundings. PLC does have its cost effective value, and may be relevant for outback long stretches deployment. Collaborating between technologies to provide consumers and utility companies with optimal solution may be the best option yet. A complementing approach will surely bring the best of all, or most worlds.
Yossi Segal is the Co-Founder & VP of Research and Development for Mobilicom
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