Learning from European Advanced Metering Deployments

By Jeff Lund, Echelon Corp.

Starting in 2000, European utilities soared to the forefront of metering systems technology. Led first by Enel in Italy, which has now deployed over 27 million smart meters in its system, and followed by utilities in countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria, these utilities have completely bypassed automatic meter reading (AMR) and moved to a next generation of metering system.

Click here to enlarge image

Unlike the AMR systems still prevalent in North America, these new advanced metering systems provide fast, secure, and highly reliable two-way communications to all meters. The meters themselves offer a new level of functionality for residential customers, including fully digital designs with integrated disconnects, remote configurability and programmability, detailed power quality measurements, support for a variety of rate plans, multi-channel data logging capability, advanced theft and tamper detection, and more. As North America continues the move toward advanced metering systems, there is much that can be learned by the experiences of these European deployments.

The European Experience

In Italy, Enel’s Contatore Elettronico Project replaced all of its standalone electricity meters with communicating solid-state meters networked via a hybrid wireless/ANSI 709 power line system at over 27 million customer sites throughout its service territory. This is the largest meter replacement and upgrade project ever undertaken. The actual deployment started in 2001 and was completed in 2006. Published estimates from Enel have shown savings of à¢â€š¬500 million per year gained from the à¢â€š¬2 billion project-an astonishing four-year ROI. The savings are obtained by the ability to perform various functions remotely and respond more effectively to customers. For example, because of its advanced metering system, Enel estimates that it will make 6 million fewer field visits each year. Enel is able to respond to 98 percent of customer requests within 24 hours. Also, the utility has created customized tariff plans for its customers, which can be dispatched over the network into the meters without requiring a field visit. In addition, the system has provided improved network planning and load balancing, while increasing fraud detection.

Currently, Sweden is in the midst of replacing its existing metering infrastructure to comply with government regulations designed to promote an open and efficient energy market. The Swedish Energy Authority (STEM) has estimated that the more frequent readings will benefit the country’s economy by about à¢â€š¬65 million per year. Two large examples of Swedish utilities adopting next-generation systems as part of this rollout are Vattenfall, which is in middle of rolling out 600,000 advanced meters based on Echelon’s Networked Energy Services (NES) system and E.ON Sweden, which is in the early stages of rolling out 370,000 advanced NES meters. Vattenfall is using its advanced metering system for additional functions beyond remote meter reading, such as remote disconnect and reconnect, load control associated with demand management, power outage recording and also power quality (voltage, current, frequency) monitoring and reporting.

Swedish utility Vattenfall is in the middle of rolling out 600,000 advanced meters in its service territories. E.ON Sweden is rolling out 370,000 as well.Click here to enlarge image

Another country that has begun to deploy advanced meters is the Netherlands, where the government has announced its intent to require smart metering and replace all 7.5 million electric meters in the county by the end of 2012. Continuon, a leading Dutch grid operator has run various advanced metering trials starting in 2002 and more recently they have undertaken a 35,000-meter deployment based on the NES system. Continuon has cited a number of key smart metering functions associated with its advanced metering system:

  • Measure consumption (active forward/reverse in 2 tiers),
  • Conditional switching,
  • Consumption threshold, and
  • Grid quality monitoring (i.e. voltage levels, outages).

In Austria, Linz STROM recently announced plans to deploy advanced NES meters to 75,000 of its customers. Linz plans to use its advanced metering infrastructure not only for electric metering applications but also to collect readings from other utility meters, to perform on-demand and time-based direct load control of high-consumption devices inside the home, and to better manage and operate street lighting systems in a portion of the service territory. Due to the growing awareness of climate change and the rising cost of electricity, cities and utilities in Europe are interested in deploying solutions that have proved to save energy and increase service quality, while providing a clear vision about future possibilities. Street lighting monitoring and control is one example of how utilities are leveraging advanced metering systems to offer additional services.

Across the European Union, countries are actively moving toward advanced metering systems both as they look for ways to reduce their costs while increasing service quality and in response to various E.U. energy-related directives. Last year, the European Smart Metering Alliance (ESMA) project was launched. The Alliance, which was initiated by British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers’ Association (BEAMA) of the U.K. and a consortium of 13 other European organizations from 11 Member European States, is 50 percent funded by the European Commission. The project is aimed at defining and spreading best practices in smart metering across Europe. The focus of the project is on maximizing the energy efficiency benefits of smart metering, which is linked to Article 13 of the Energy End-Use Efficiency and Energy Services Directive (ESD). Other project objectives include supporting the rollout of smart metering throughout Europe, providing a forum for stakeholders to come together and agreeing on the costs and benefits of smart metering.

As these countries, and the utilities within them, look to upgrade their metering infrastructure, there is a growing consensus that the systems to be installed must not only meet today’s needs but must be “future-proof” and capable of growing and adapting to meet the changing needs of the utilities, customers, and regulators. Metering systems are long-lived assets; the systems that are installed today will operate for decades. While no one can predict with certainty what the future holds, some key attributes of a “future-proof” system can be identified. These attributes include the ability to upgrade meter firmware over a secure, reliable, two-way communications network and sufficient hardware capabilities in each meter in terms of memory, processing power, measurement capability, and control capabilities to support changes in billing strategies, power quality measurement, and demand response programs that may emerge over time.

Lessons for North America

Given the history of AMR adoption in North America, some might have expected the next generation systems to take hold there first. However, many North American utilities have already made an investment in AMR systems, so their relatively newly purchased AMR equipment often slows the move to newer, more advanced systems. In Europe, with little investment in legacy AMR systems, utilities are able to move forward more quickly toward advanced metering systems.

The question for North American utilities is whether or not the experience of European utilities is relevant to those in North America and, if so, what should be drawn from it?

The relevance of European advanced metering deployments is often questioned due to perceived technical differences between European and North American power grids. While there are differences, there are also many similarities and much that can be learned.

A key difference is that European utilities typically service more residences per transformer. Many utilities in Europe have taken advantage of low-cost, bidirectional localized power line communications systems to enable a cluster of meters on a given low-voltage transformer to share a single radio frequency (RF) modem, which tends to be one of the more expensive components in the system. The European approach has proved to be reliable, secure and cost-effective. In contrast, basic AMR systems have typically required an RF card in every meter. While North American utilities may not experience the same magnitude of per-customer cost reduction using this approach, there is still potentially a significant gain. Even sharing the RF card in one meter with two other meters on the same transformer represents a 67 percent reduction in RF equipment cost and management complexity.

Another often-cited difference is that disconnects for North American meters are more expensive than their European counterparts due to the higher amperage provided to residential customers (200 A versus 100 A). While North American disconnects may have historically been more expensive, much of this is due to low volume and the use of a retrofit “collar style” design. However when included as an integral part of the meter design from day one, the disconnect cost can be dramatically reduced. Many of the additional features and operating improvements of advanced metering infrastructure systems stem from a remotely controllable disconnect with configurable current limiting capabilities, including remote service disconnect and reconnect, lifeline service, remote upgrade, intelligent load curtailment, and prepaid metering.

One other important but often overlooked difference is that North America has a significantly higher percentage of outdoor meters with meter sockets. In contrast, almost all European meters are indoors with wired bases requiring installation by electricians. This difference represents a significant advantage for North American utilities when deploying new meter systems compared to their European counterparts because it reduces installation costs and logistical complexity.

Of course the regulatory and political environments also differ between Europe and North America. The European Union began opening markets and unbundling services in late-1996. Energy conservation has been an important part of European energy policy for some time. These same political and regulatory forces are a much more recent phenomenon in North America, which in many ways is now following the same arc as Europe, just shifted by several years.

So, while there are some differences between North American and European utilities, the importance of these differences has often been overemphasized or misinterpreted. There are essential advantages and common attributes of advanced metering systems no matter where they are installed. Europe has taken the lead in implementing advanced metering projects with enhanced security, reliability, availability and functionality. These represent large, cost-effective, working examples of next-generation systems and new deployment models that North American utilities can learn from and build upon when looking at how they can move forward through the 21st century.

Jeff Lund is vice president of business development at Echelon Corporation. He has a master of business administration degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor of science degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of California at Davis.


  • The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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