Not-so-smart cities?

Great Britain has embarked on an ambitious plan to replace the electric and gas meters in people’s homes and businesses with ‘smart’ devices that monitor and transmit data about energy consumption. Critics, however, are predicting a fiasco in the making, flagging a host of potential problems with the scheme. Here, TEST Magazine sets out the criticisms and speaks to SQS, one of the companies involved in testing some of the new systems.

The promise of smart meters

Smart meters have the potential to be the building blocks of smart cities. In theory, by monitoring energy usage, they can ensure that homeowners and businesses use resources in the most efficient way possible, bringing down utility bills and emissions, expediting customer service, and even improving the balance of payments for energy importing countries.

Yet the technology is being rolled out during a period of breathtaking technological change, and there are mounting questions over whether the smart meters can keep up. Latest among the sceptics is the Institute of Directors (IoD), a body that represents British bosses. It released a report in March 2015 entitled ‘Not too clever: will Smart Meters be the next Government IT disaster?’ which pulled together the main strands of criticism levelled against the smart meters.

The IoD report said the UK scheme, which involves the installation of over 100 million devices , was an ‘immensely complex programme’ and it queried whether the international experience of smart meters suggested that they were a worthwhile investment. The IoD highlighted the case of Germany, where a study commissioned from consultants EY concluded that the smart meters did not withstand a cost-benefit analysis. The report described the energy savings as ‘paltry’.

The report noted that the success of the project depended on data transmitted not by WiFi or Bluetooth, but by a little-known suite of wireless protocols called ZigBee, designed to send data long distances and through solid objects. The UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) and the smart meter manufacturers are developing a new ZigBee standard that will operate at the lower frequency of 868 MHz. The IoD report claimed the lifetime of the ZigBee chips was unlikely to be longer than four years, and that ZigBee’s UK-only specification will need years of debugging after its launch.

Regarding the software, the report questioned whether Elexon, the company that handles the UK’s current daily volume of 1.25 million meter readings, was prepared for the 20-fold increase in readings that the smart devices are expected to generate. “It is far from clear that the utilities will have the scaleable IT infrastructure in place and in time to cope with this new flood of data,” it suggested. “That would suggest they may choose only to collect enough data for automated meter reading (AMR), rather than delve into consumption analytics.”

Security was another major concern. According to the report, “many argue” that the security dimension was mistakenly omitted at the beginning of the development process and then “bolted on at a later date”. It argued that a hacked smart meter would tell cyber-criminals when a homeowner was out of his or her house; or allow homeowners to doctor their own readings to reduce their bills; or even allow intruders to switch off the electricity or gas supply. Were a Trojan horse to switch off the power en masse, it would do great damage to the national grid, the report noted.

Interoperability was another issue flagged: “It has emerged that an undisclosed number of the first generation of smart meters known as SMETS 1 (Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specifications) will not be interoperable with Smart Meter infrastructure to be built by 2020, meaning a large number of them will have to be replaced, due to obsolescence after just a few years of service with SMETS 2 compliant meters.”

In summary, the report said that Britain faced a potentially never-ending cycle of replacing obsolete meters. Seeking an answer to the IoD’s software-related criticisms, TEST Magazine spoke to Lead Utilities Consultant Jack Coxeter. SQS has extensive experience in testing smart-meter technology and has worked with the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to help structure the testing regime and regulation.

To what extent was testing a part of the software development life cycle for SMETS?

Jack Coxeter: Testing is a key element. In light of the amount of integration, the number of vendors, and the use of devices, means it takes significantly longer than normal IT delivery and the challenges can be much greater

How did testing fit in with the rest of the production schedule?

JC: Testing in smart metering needs to run in parallel with supporting production and has longer stability periods. In SMETS 1 (Smart Meters Equipment Tech Spec, version 1) many of the changes and elements delivered were not part of the core applications so some were easy to schedule. Other, more backend changes typically need to conform with very fixed release schedules, and these required more planning and added constraints to delivery.

Did any particularly difficult or unanticipated problems come up in testing?

JC: In short, end-to-end integration took significantly longer than expected and I suspect the same can be expected with SMETS 2 (Smart Meters Equipment Tech Spec, version 2) as encountered with SMETS 1. Setbacks were common and often delivery was held back due to late delivery from third party vendors.

Wouldn’t it be better to attach a sensor to the old mechanical readers and then transmit the data via a smartphone app, as a much cheaper and more future-proof solution?

JC: I think suppliers are already considering how consumers will interface with the data, such as apps in addition to in-home energy displays (IHDs).However, my understanding is that if IHD were to be dropped completely, it would require regulation change. I’d also say that lots of the ‘dumb’ metering equipment currently in use is very old, so needs updating anyway.

Critics also say that the industry isn’t ready for the 20-fold increase in daily meter readings generated by the smart devices. Is scalability an issue?

JC: Essentially, meter reads will predominantly become half hourly per consumer, so yes they will increase significantly with smart. But compared to other industries, in-home video streaming for instance, the quantity of transactions is not massive, so there are systems that require way more data and way more storage.

Nevertheless, scalability is an area that will be tested extensively and solutions are being designed to enable future scaling.

The security of the smart meters was another major worry. The IoD says that the security elements were “bolted on” at a later stage.

JC: There were good reasons why DECC improved the security model. Security is certainly very high on everyone’s agenda and there will be significant decisions on how systems are hosted and connected to DCC. Those using the Data and Communications Company (DCC, the body which manages the SMETS communications infrastructure) will need to be ISO27001 compliant, which is a high bar to jump over, and suppliers and other users are likely to bring in specialists security experts to help in this area.

Certainly security is an area in which the DECC, Communications-Electronics Security Group, DCC, suppliers and data network operators will be taking very seriously and testing will play a very important role in de-risking the delivery. The meters themselves are also undergoing certification and this will include protocol (ZigBee and DLMS) certification. In addition there will be penetration testing and testing of the DCC Key Infrastructure.

Security in SMETS 2 will be at levels not seen before in smart metering. This represents challenges to the delivery in terms of complexity, but due to this being critical national infrastructure it’s essential security is at the heart of testing. Certainly the meters, the DCC and its users will be expected to test security very thoroughly and understandingly it’s built into the SEC regulatory requirements. 

Is inter-operability between SMETS1 and SMETS2 a worry, given their differing requirements?

JC: One of the key elements of SMETS2 is that it defines a protocol standard, and there is certification to ensure the meters meet the standard, which will help interoperability. The rules governing SMETS1, on the other hand, were looser.

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that there are only about 1.5 million SMETS1 meters installed at the moment, so the vast majority will be SMETS2.

When smart meters go ‘live’, will testing continue? How will this work?

JC: Testing in smart doesn’t end at live, mainly as the live environment throws up new challenges that are hard to replicate in test. An enduring test process will need to be created to support this and this will include the ability to test meter firmware updates effectively ahead of deployment.

What about the IoD’s comparisons to other countries? They would seem to cast doubt over the claims being made for SMETS’ impact on demand and supply. And why would privatised energy companies want people to consume less energy, which in the end will damage their own profitability?

JC: I’m not sure you can make a direct comparison with Germany and Italy. What the UK is attempting is significantly different than in most other countries, in terms of how advanced it is. It is far more ‘all singing all dancing’ than has been attempted elsewhere and encompasses both gas and electricity.

As for whether private energy countries have an incentive to persuade people to spend less on energy, it’s worth remembering that smart meters are an opportunity to develop new services around them, such as boiler installation and maintenance. For instance, as more and more wind and solar in the energy mix, and electricity generation becomes more weather dependent, smart meters could again help to manage loads.


This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of TEST Magazine. Read more here.