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3 May 2022

Utilities struggle to quantify benefits of IoT, call for standards

The recent volatility of global energy markets has promoted the role of IoT in reducing costs, improving efficiency and even insulating against fluctuations in spot prices. Water utilities have also been subject to growing stresses in many regions, occasioned by arguably greater extremes of weather but more particularly increasing demand and tighter regulations over quality and management.

While roll-out of smart metering is a common factor across energy and water utilities, IoT has also figured increasingly across the whole distribution pipeline for maintenance and quality control. Most of these utility IoT applications now require wireless communication, not usually because mobility is involved but because wired communications for multiple metering and sensor points would be too expensive or practically impossible.

Low power WAN protocols have been employed for their combination of reach and energy efficiency for low-bandwidth IoT communications, which has led to contention between the options that has distorted focus on the higher goal of achieving a standardized higher-level framework for IoT infrastructures that is agnostic of underlying transport, whether wired or wireless.

A key standard for utilities is the Open Metering System developed by the European group of the same name for Meter-Bus (M-Bus) communication between utility meters, whether for transmission of electricity, gas, water, or some other purpose along the grid such as the increasingly important sub-metering. The latter term usually applies to meters downstream of the utility’s endpoint, say within an enterprise to monitor use by a specific department, or even of a given appliance such as boiler within a home.

This standard would also apply to meters installed within the utility’s domain to monitor flows and leakages, and to combat theft through meter bypass. That is still a significant problem in some countries and can be countered by installing meters in the street capable of detecting any suspiciously low readings reported by individual domestic or enterprise meters.

Although Europe-centric, this open metering system has set the stage for standardized communication between meters independent not just of manufacture, but also the underlying communications media or protocol, such as LoRa, or one of the low power cellular variants, LTE-M or NB-IoT. Demand for such standardization has been growing significantly among utilities, according to a recent report ‘Journey to IoT Maturity’ from the Wi-SUN (Wireless Smart Ubiquitous Network) Alliance, a non-profit member organization promoting interoperable wireless communications for smart grids and cities.

The report is a follow up to one published five years earlier in 2017, with open standards now more widely cited as critical for success in smart grid projects and especially more broadly for integrated smart city applications.

The headline figure does not appear that decisive – a rise from 79% of utilities believing that open standards were either “very important” or “absolutely crucial” to 84% now. But utilities place stronger emphasis now on the role of standards in meeting their key strategic goals, that is security of supply, robustness of infrastructure, and cost savings.

“With open standards, stakeholders are able to accelerate time-to-market and reduce development costs, and benefit from a wider choice of vendors,” said Phil Beecher, president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance. “Crucially, cross-industry collaboration also becomes easier.”

This last point alludes to the rise of field area networks (FANs), which are being built jointly by energy and water utilities as part of smart city or grid projects in tandem with local authorities. Although each utility has specific monitoring and metering, a FAN can harness shared physical infrastructure such as smart streetlighting, creating a skeleton for hanging the flesh of dedicated nodes capable of operating in low-power mode. These nodes can be sensors in water pipes, gas mains, smart meters, or attached to electrical cables.

The report also notes the ability of shared FANs to unlock collaborative opportunities, such as desalination infrastructure and hydroelectric power plants that might be shared by electricity and water utilities, enabling pooling of upfront capex costs while still allowing downstream freedom of choice over vendors, devices and technologies.

Many of these downstream challenges increasingly require wireless communications to reach impenetrable places. This is particularly true for water utilities, which are now often charged with monitoring waste networks as well as delivery. This has led to growth in demand for rugged and yet compact manhole cover antennas connected to sensors and data loggers underground to monitor waste water flows and also detect impending blockages resulting from buildup of limescale for example. Gas and electricity utilities are also deploying sensors in places that can only be served by wireless communications, either above or below ground.

In many of these instances the benefits and cost savings achieved might appear self-evident and indeed can sometimes be readily quantified. In the case of smart meters, it is straightforward to calculate direct cost savings resulting from reduction in need for onsite meter readings, as well as through more accurate and timely billing. But smart grids also liberate new applications that add value in various ways, such as optimization of supply and differential pricing to balance supply and demand more efficiently.

Utilities are eager for a stronger evidence base for IoT deployments, and data or insights on that front have been elusive.  One of the few studies we have found dates back to April 2021 and was sponsored by the US wireless R&D company InterDigital. This estimated broadly that IoT would achieve significant net savings for both water and electricity utilities over the next decade. On the water front, the report estimated that IoT devices would conserve nearly 230bn cubic meters of water by 2030, with 35% of that saving coming improved smart water grid operations, and the remainder from improved IoT-enabled agricultural applications such as better crop management of irrigation for crops.

For power, the report found that new IoT technologies would increase global electricity use by 34 terawatt-hours (TWh) by 2030, but would then save consumption by over 1.6 petawatt-hours (PWh), a figure almost 50 times higher. Such estimates should be greeted with caution, especially on the electricity front where there are so many uncertainties in the current climate but are welcomed by utilities in the absence of more concrete intelligence.

What emerged clearly from that recent Wi-SUN report on actual attitudes is that utilities have become much more focused on the importance of establishing the most flexible and robust IoT communications architecture.

They are less concerned with debates over the efficacy of contending LPWAN protocols, but very clear that mesh networks avoiding single points of failure or control are the way forward. The number of utilities exclusively using star networks with central connection points has dropped from 21% in 2017 to 12% today, while those using hybrid networks, combining mesh and star in a more robust configuration, has risen from 58% to 68%. This is a general IT trend not confined to utility IoT.