The Smart Grid, From Analog to SEP 2.0

February 27, 2014

During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in January, he remarked that “one of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy,” and that it’s not just increasing energy production, but also partnering with businesses, builders, and local communities to reduce the energy we consume. For the past several years, NTS has been assisting manufacturers and utilities in reducing energy consumption via our work on the smart grid.

The smart grid, in short, is a modernization of the electric grid that has changed little in concept since the days of Thomas Edison. The smart grid updates the electric grid with two way communications allowing for more efficient use of power. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the U.S. government funded over $3.4 billion to a broad range of technologies to help America move towards energy independence, including updating the nation’s electrical grid.

For decades the average home or business has used the old-fashioned spinning wheel electric meter requiring a monthly visit by the meter reader. A couple weeks later, you receive a bill in the mail telling you how much electricity you’ve used. By replacing these old-fashioned meters with smart meters, your energy usage is sent back to the utility a few times per day. With a home automation device utilized by a multi-system operator (MSO) like Comcast or AT&T, you can proactively control your energy usage with up-to-date information on the energy you are using now – not a month from now.

smart meter
Analog meter (left) and modern smart meter (right)

The ZigBee standard provides a low-powered, low-cost wireless communications “mesh” network to connect your smart meter, in-home display and other devices throughout your home. Using the ZigBee Smart Energy Profile, these devices can become part of a “Home Area Network” or HAN. In the most common use scenario, a smart meter outside of the house provides electric usage information to an in-home display, allowing consumers to identify how much energy they are using and make informed decisions about adjusting their energy use. The ZigBee standard used for these devices allows for plug-and-play interoperability between devices support the standard.

ZigBee is currently moving to a new version of the Smart Energy Profile standard version 2.0 (known as SEP 2.0) which adds additional features, including support for other types of communications, like Wi-Fi, PLC, and Bluetooth, IPv6 addressability for cyber security, and support for Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV) charging. As is often the case with a major upgrade of this type, older devices which support the SEP 1.x version of the standard may no longer function correctly with upgrades.

Ultimately, this will be beneficial in terms of additional features, such as added security, but it requires analysis to determine what’s needed from a utility’s perspective to transition. This applies not only to their equipment, but to devices being used by their customers. How will we make the transition to support the latest version of the specification? Below are a few options:

  1. Offer incentives for consumers to trade-in their old devices for new devices that support SEP 2.0
  2. Remote upgrading of devices to support SEP 2.0 (depending if the devices support either proprietary upgrade options or so called over-the air [OTA] upgrades)
  3. Use of a gateway to translate communications from SEP 1.x to SEP 2.0 (e.g., SEP 1.x smart meter with a SEP 2.0 in-home display or thermostat)

NTS is an authorized ZigBee certification lab and performs testing on these devices to make sure they communicate correctly and interoperate as designed by the standard. In addition to certification we work closely with utilities, such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), prior to a new deployment to make sure that the devices being used in the home (such as in-home displays and thermostats) work properly with the entire network, including the back-end equipment used by the utilities (known as end-to-end testing). We also verify devices work properly after deployment, so that manufacturers can make sure their new devices work properly on the whole network prior to the utility authorizing their use.

It’s important for utilities to consider their SEP transition and upgrade options before any large-scale HAN deployments to avoid stranding assets, and just as important, avoid annoying their consumers.

For the latest smart grid news, follow the NTS Advanced Technology group online:

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