When ‘smart’ becomes ‘intelligent’

Smart meter project grows into big data venture

The recent publication of a research paper entitled “The Impact of Supply Chain Resilience on the Business Case for Smart Meter Installation” was a new milestone in the Chair Partnership with Flemish gas and power distributor Eandis. What started off as a proof of concept among 4,000 households having a smart meter installed has grown into a challenging big data venture with information no-one has ever had before.

This video shows gives a short overview of how smart meters work (in Dutch):

Professor Samii, the Chair Partnership with Eandis is about smart meters. Can you briefly explain what smart meter technology is about?

Professor Samii: “A smart meter allows a company like Eandis to collect information on energy consumption every 15 minutes instead of every two years – i.e. when an Eandis employee actually comes to your house in order to read the electricity or gas meter. It provides insight into consumption patterns, how we can match supply and demand, and – more importantly – how to make the best managerial decision based on that information. With consumers also becoming producers – so-called prosumers – that decision becomes even more complex.”

Why is this smart meter technology so important?

Professor Samii: “With the 2020 pact, the European Commission wants each member state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 1990 levels and to raise its share of energy produced from renewable resources to 20% by 2020. Belgium, and in particular Flanders, was taking the initiative by way of Eandis. One of the mandates of this initiative is to provide a feasibility study for running a smart meter project. Eandis started with a proof of concept with some 4,000 households in order to see what the technical and managerial challenges were. That’s exactly when we embarked on the Chair with Eandis.”

That was four years ago. What have been the main stages in the research so far?

Professor Samii: “The first step was to work on a business model for the smart meters. There were technical aspects – a meter is supposed to work for some 30 years – as well as social aspects, such as privacy issues. But most of all, it’s just such a massive project that runs over so many years: we’re talking about installing 2.5 million electricity meters and 1.5 million gas meters! First of all we mapped the existing meters and found that there were around 6,000 different types in use. But if you want to develop a project that’s future-proof, you have to eliminate as many uncertainties as possible. We therefore proposed to reduce the number of types of meters. We looked at different scenarios and ended up with 11 different types. This means you will have to overprovision, but looking at it from the supply chain point of view, you don’t just consider the purchase cost, but also the overall cost of training, maintenance, etc. in the long run. These recommendations were collated in a research paper that was recently published in The Electricity Journal.”

Congratulations, Professor. And what was next?

Professor Samii: “Thank you. (smiles) Whereas the first phase of the research focused on how to implement and install the meters, the second phase was about how Eandis is going to send and communicate the massive amounts of data they collect. We developed a small-scale model based on real information. In the third phase, we’ll be detailing how we can use the information provided by the smart meters for managerial decision-making.”

Why is that so important?

Professor Samii: “Because, in my opinion, that’s where the future of Eandis lies. Eandis is the owner of the meters and of the information that comes out of them: the decisions made out of the zeroes and ones are the value. Not only dynamic pricing decisions in order to flatten demand, but also decisions on the role of renewable energy, of prosumers, of even taking control over certain devices connected to the grid, etc. This is all part of a hugely complex debate, because we’re talking about information that no-one has ever had before.”

You have one more year to go in this Chair…

Professor Samii: “Indeed, but looking at the challenges ahead, I sincerely hope that we’ll be able to continue this project with Eandis. Up to now Eandis has tapped into my resources as a professor of supply chain management, since the process of installing the meters is a major (and ongoing) supply chain management challenge. But the further we go, the more it becomes apparent that Eandis should also tap into some of our other resources as well, such as big data analytics. It’s really a win-win: it provides us with first-hand issues and data that help us in developing relevant research output. And Eandis benefits from the solutions we work out during the research process.”

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