Utilities normally come up first when talking M2M. Primarily electricity but also water and gas. It’s huge global businesses and infrastructures dealing with things that are closely related to the sustainability issues as well as safety and security, everyone on the planet including politicians are involved one way or another and on top it’s one of few areas where M2M solutions already have been used in large scale. Many utility companies have telecommunication business experience which makes them knowledgable buyers.
Smart Grid is the white paper or vision for how the electricity industry will cope with the new world where production, distribution and consumption of electricity is managed in real time all around the grid and where usage is optimized over time. The basic idea is to connect everything and add computing on top. If the smart grids happen we are looking at a new industry of “Internet size” in 30-50 years which has made many large corporations starting to dig there already.
Given the limitations of our globe it is obvious that we have to do something and I am convinced “connecting and computing” is a major part of it. But the scale of the project means it will take a lot of time, financing has to be sorted out, concepts and solutions have to be proven and so on, which explains why we still see primarily pilot projects and trials. And when it happens big way, most of it will be a game for large players with big projects and thin margins like most infrastructure business.
The first step towards the smart grids are connected electricity meters for automated meter reading (AMR) and we are in the middle of that huge roll out project right now. Global shipments of smart meters exceeded 100M 2011 and is estimated to be 250M by 2016 (ABI Research). EU wants 80% of the meters to be smart by 2020 and Italy and Sweden are already done. North America has already more than 50% meters connected (Berg Insight) after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) which included US$ 43 Billion plus tax incentives for the energy sector. Also Asia is speeding up their efforts with Japan having the most advanced power grid monitoring systems in place, China announcing a five year AMI plan, Singapore working on their Intelligent Energy System and South Korea their Smart Grid Demonstration Project. Some 1,5B smart meters will be deployed during the next 10 years and meter manufacturers like Landis & Gyr, Sensus and Itron and communication module providers like Telit, Cinterion and Sierra Wireless are all working hard to capture this big business opportunity. But since the traffic per smart meter is tiny (probably less than half MB per year) it is not obvious that the smart meters is the salvation for network providers. A mix of different technologies is used to connect the meters to the central applications. Reportlinker estimates 38% of M2M connections in the utilities industry today to be cellular connections growing to 57% by 2020. MAN, including power line communications (PLC) and community WiFi, accounts for 53% today and is estimated to 28% by 2020.
Even though energy companies and governments are keen on rolling out smart electricity meters some consumers are not. Several US consumer groups like in Naperville, Illinois, are fighting the smart meter roll-outs in order to give the consumers the option to stay with the old meters. But more often consumer groups are pushing smart meters to put the consumers in control.
Replacing meters for electricity, water and gas with smart ones is only the beginning. Making the grids smarter will require a lot of relevant networks and IT systems to be made available. The grids are also part of the national critical infrastructure protection efforts why I believe we will see governments getting very much involved in how to build, operate and protect this infrastructure onwards.