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British Gas, BT push ahead with smart-meter plans

The gas supplier and its partners have outlined plans for a large-scale trial in the north east, while BT, Arqiva and Detica have named their smart-meter communications consortium as SmartReach
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The UK's move towards the smart grid and smart metering gathered pace this week, with a major trial in the north east being announced and BT giving more details about its consortium with Arqiva and Detica.

Plans for the £54m trial were unveiled on Wednesday by British Gas, CE Electric UK, Durham University and the engineering consultancy EA Technology. The group of companies hopes to find 14,000 volunteers to have smart meters installed, drawn from homes and businesses in places like Durham, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield.

The smart meters feed detailed energy-consumption information back to suppliers, while attached monitors provide information for consumers about their consumption patterns and cost.

"With tough climate targets to meet, and volatile wholesale energy markets, it is vital that Britain makes the transition to a low-carbon economy — and no single company has all the answers," British Gas managing director Phil Bentley said in a statement. "British Gas is leading the way in smart meters in smart homes, but now we're teaming up with a unique set of partners who will help deliver the largest smart-grid project the UK has seen."

The idea behind the project is to find out more about how new technologies — such as solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and electric cars — make an impact on the electricity grid. Microgeneration technologies like PV make it possible for homes and businesses to sell energy into the grid, rather than just consuming energy — a feature that could be useful for owners of electric cars, which require a lot of electricity.

British Gas's consortium hopes to get £28m in funding from Ofgem's Low Carbon Funds Network for the scheme, and is in talks with companies such as GE, Panasonic and Nissan to test new technology on the grid. If Ofgem agrees, work could start in early 2011. The group expects 800 homes or businesses to install solar PV panels, 150 to test electric cars and up to 1,500 to install either ground-source or air-source heat pumps.

Meanwhile, another consortium involving BT, the broadcast and spectrum management company Arqiva and the security firm Detica has given itself a name — SmartReach. The branding was unveiled on Thursday at a London event.

SmartReach is gearing up to tender for the communications side of the smart grid — the radio links that are likely to be the way that smart meters report back to the energy companies' central systems. British Gas's consortium is concerned with the smart grid itself, and another group, consisting of Landis+Gyr, Elster and Secure, is tendering to provide the smart meters.

SmartReach's main competition comes from GPRS, the pre-3G cellular comms technology. However, Arqiva has two valuable assets that the consortium hopes will win it the national deal — a chunk of 412MHz spectrum and an extensive nationwide portfolio of masts. The 412MHz spectrum provides good reach and allows for better in-building coverage than cellular spectrum.

"We can hit 70 percent within 12 months of us deciding to hit the 'go' button," Arqiva's strategy chief, Alistair Davidson, said at the BT Tower launch event. David Green, the company's smart-metering programme director, suggested that the UK's water infrastructure also "has a huge amount to gain" by installing meters that improve leak detection. He said Thames Water is starting to trial such meters, even though the water industry is not under a government mandate to introduce a smart grid.

Within SmartReach, BT would handle the project-management side of the smart-meter rollout, much as British Gas would in its own consortium. Detica, on the other hand, would make sure that the communications between premises and central systems would be secure.

Detica's commercial client group director, Richard Watson, said at Thursday's event that cyberattacks are "becoming much more sophisticated, and that threat will grow as our reliance on technology increases". He also pointed out that the Netherlands's smart-metering plan "had to be moved from mandated status to optional", due to privacy concerns.

Companies such as Google and Microsoft are lining up to provide applications to help people interpret smart-meter data. Watson said Detica was not concerned about third-parties such as these being given access to that information by consumers, as much as it was about criminals being able to infer when people are at home.

Jo Wright, BT's vice president for smart meters and smart grids, added that BT was less concerned about people playing tricks on their friends by using their smartphones to control, for example, their home heating, than it was about the criminal element. "Our concern is they can't turn off Basingstoke," she said.

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