Around the world, smart meter adoption is booming, as governments and individuals aim to increase electricity grid flexibility using the Internet of Things (IoT). In 2016, 700 million smart meters had been installed worldwide, with $14.3bn being spent on them throughout the year.

In the Netherlands specifically, as part of its plan to upgrade its energy system to increase sustainable energy and decrease carbon emissions, the government has begun a rolling out smart meters across the whole country. The Intelligent Grids Innovation Programme, run by the Dutch Government, is also funding 94 pilot projects aiming to improve grid technology and smart metering.

There are almost 7.8 million households in the Netherlands, making the rollout of smart meters a huge task. It has been entrusted to regional grid operators, such as Enexis Netbeheer, and regulated by the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Enexis began installing smart meters in 2007, and to date has installed 900,000 devices, with plans to increase this. By 2020, the company aims to have setup 2.8 million electricity smart meters and a similar number of gas meters.

“That’s a huge effort and we have been working on it already for a couple of years,” says Philip Westbroek, Security Officer for industrial control systems (ICS) and SCADA, Enexis Netbeheer. “We are currently installing about 7,700 smart meters each week; this number will increase to 10,000 per week in the near future. That applies to us but other Dutch grid operators install similar numbers of meters; the Dutch Government has told us to install smart meters in every household before the end of 2020.”

The benefits of a smarter energy system

Smart meters boast a number of benefits for consumers, energy providers and managers. “The whole idea behind smart meters is to increase the awareness of energy usage and the awareness of energy savings,” says Westbroek. “So customers can see immediately the effect of turning down the thermostat, for example.

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“Of course, to enable this, you also need to have some sort of feedback mechanism with consumers. One of the options being used in the Netherlands is to have an in-home display that shows your energy use in real-time on a screen, and the effect that energy savings have money-wise.”

Smart meters are going to be an essential part of the smart grid in the Netherlands, which is aiming to increase its share of sustainable energy to 16% by 2023, and almost 100% by 2050. The rollout is being facilitated by advances in smart management, and Enexis is working with American IoT platform developer Cisco Jasper.

“When we started with smart meters in 2007, there were no tools at all available to companies like ours to manage a large-scale rollout of sim cards,” says Westbroek. “I think this Cisco Jasper platform is indeed essential to rollout this large number of smart meters and to trouble-shoot smart meters.”

The Cisco Jasper platform allows Enexis to manage the smart meters through an online control centre, making it aware immediately of problems with the sims. If the sims within the smart meters fail, the meters are unable to send meter readings to Enexis, making the Cisco Jasper platform a vital component to the system’s success.

Smart meters are also being installed in substations; these can make Enexis aware of electrical outages much more quickly than traditional methods.

“We have a total of approximately 50,000 substations in our region, and many of those don’t have connectivity on an IT level,” says Westbroek. “Of course there’s connectivity with the grid, but we cannot see what happens in detail in all those substations because we don’t have sensors there. That’s another thing we’re doing now, rolling out sensors in all our substations to make sure that we can identify the location of outages more quickly.”

Reconciling old and new

The sheer scale of the smart meter rollout in the Netherlands brings with it logistical challenges, but technological aspects have also proved testing. “There are a number of challenges we have to overcome; one of them is the availability of the mobile network,” says Westbroek. “These 900,000 [smart meters], a very large part of them have 2G modes of communication and the 2G network will be phased out in the future. So that causes quite some headaches for grid operators in the Netherlands.

“A couple of years ago we decided we needed to have a solution to avoid a mobile operator (or vendor) lock-in. We wanted to be able to switch to a new operator without physically changing the sim card. We’ve been lobbying for that for a number of years, since 2010 or so, at the Ministry of Economic Affairs. That solution became possible in 2014, and that’s why we now have the Cisco Jasper solution.”

Enexis and Cisco Jasper are working with mobile operator KPN to create these sim cards and ensure the security of the 2G network to enable the sims to be used for as long as possible. However, in order to keep up with technological advancements the sims currently distributed support 4G, to ensure they have a lifespan of at least 15 years from installation.

The smart meters installed within substations also face lifespan challenges. “If you look at the expected lifespan of electricity equipment, like transformers and cables, those are much, much higher than IT equipment,” says Westbroek. “A transformer for example could be 50-75 years old and it still functions. IT equipment has a typical life expectancy of ten years, and that’s a huge difference.”

Smart meter technology and Enexis are quickly overcoming hurdles, and look set to become commonplace in homes throughout the Netherlands over the next few years, helping the whole system to become more intelligent with the use of IoT.