Quick Smart! Gemserv believes smart water metering is only a matter of time

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Source: THE WATER REPORT – September 2017 edition

Markets specialist Gemserv believes smart water metering is only a matter of time – and urges water companies to take the initiative rather than end up on the back foot.

It may seem a little premature for the water industry to be considering how to manage a national smart water meter rollout, given the lack of a policy driver, that dumb meter penetration is patchy, and that energy smart metering has far from proved itself an unqualified success as yet. However, Gemserv cautions that if water companies do not take the initiative now, digesting and learning lessons from the energy experience, they could well miss out on opportunities to get smart metering right when the time comes.

According to Gemserv’s head of connected markets Matthew Knight, water companies need to “preempt potential developments” in the policy and technology space. Where energy goes, water tends to follow (witness non household retail) and energy is well and truly committed to the smart meter rollout after years of activity in the space. What’s more, the once futuristic ambition of connected homes is emerging as an everyday possibility now mobile technology has given customers control of connected devices at their fingertips – or the ability to allow artificial intelligence to control these devices on their behalf. Knight comments: “Water could be excluded from the connected home if the industry doesn’t act soon.”

Moreover domestic water switching may have gone quiet for the moment as the government wrestles with Brexit and experts further scrutinise the cost benefit case, but it is unlikely to have gone away for good. As well as helping identify leakage, smart metering would enable water services to be more easily bundled in to multi-utility deals that could eventually dominate the household market space –– but again water risks being excluded from these opportunities if it remains analogue.

Fundamental considerations

Knight advises water companies to look now at three main areas:

  • Would there be benefits from developing an industry-led smart water code? Even without the mandate present in energy, water sector players could pre-empt regulation and collaborate to develop a code that mirrors the work carried out in that space. This could extend to considering technology and communication options that minimise cost and the risk of duplication. Energy smart metering is unorthodox among such programmes in being retailer- rather than network-led. That is unlikely to be an option for water, with an area-based roll out far more intuitive. But nonetheless early consideration of the detail and the potential to collaborate across boundaries could save time, money and deliver a better customer experience.
  • Architecture – The early definition of common technical, security and operational architectures would reduce duplication and future complexity, enabling utilities to develop and deliver smart metering solutions with confidence. Sensitivity is high to cyber crime in our increasingly connected world and companies could minimise the risk of data theft and privacy breaches by including them as fundamental considerations in architecture design. “Defining these early on could avoid complexity down the line,” he counsels. Consideration should also be given to whether the model that has been chosen for energy, with a third party processor in the form of the Data and Communications Company, would be the right model for water.
  • What meter infrastructure would be best and how should this be tested and assured? What infrastructure would provide the best value and a consistent quality of service? Conditions in water diverge from those in energy at this point: companies would have to wrestle with practical challenges such as many existing meters being submerged in pits that at times fill with water, and having no mains power supply. These additional challenges mean the choice of technology and communications protocol is absolutely vital. Interchangeability is key here also, should household competition develop over time.

Horizon scanning

Beyond these basics, water companies would be wise to scan the horizon and consider a host of other factors too. A good example is to pinpoint early on what data is most valuable to each business, and how best to prioritise converting that into valuable information in an unfamiliar data-saturated world.  Compliant data management more widely also needs thought, particularly in light of next year’s General Data Protection Regulation.

And what about compatibility with other sectors’ systems? At some point, water meter data could need to flow into smart homes systems, for example, so compatibility beyond the sector is important. In a similar vein, other stakeholders could come to make use of smart water data and will need to be able to handle and analyse it – for instance, insurance companies could draw on leakage data to help manage their premiums and claims analysis.  “There could be multiple beneficiaries,” says Knight. The key, he adds, is to “think holistically” about how data from smart water meters could be deployed in the round – from the obvious of reducing leakage, providing customer insight and improving customer service, to more creative use in demand management, water resources provision, network planning, cost reduction, and services external to the sector.

Knight concludes that while we may seem some way off a smart water world, interest is growing and technology is ever-evolving. Companies in water stressed areas including Thames Water and Southern Water have already become early adopters of universal meters that to one degree or another can be classified as intelligent, and other companies may be expected to follow suit in their PR19 business plans. “Those who have gone early are learning the lessons already,” says Knight “We are already seeing differences of emphasis in these programmes – some are more customer centric, others more network/leakage led.” He advises ongoing analysis and industry debate, as evidence is gathered to inform a potential smart meter rollout that is truly intelligent and delivers best value for customers.