Hybrid LPWAN connectivity solution boosts smart metering to market

With the availability of gateways that offer both NB-IoT and LoRaWAN options, utilities no longer have to choose one, they can do both.

Energy costs are rising, with retail electricity prices in the U.S. averaging 10.66 cents per kilowatt-hour last year, the highest level in more than 30 years. Still, electricity in the U.S. remains relatively cheap, at least compared to other developed nations, especially European equivalents. European countries account for seven of the top 10 global household electricity prices, with German consumers bearing the greatest burden, paying an average of 36 cents per kilowatt-hour.

It is no surprise that the European Union (EU) is leading the way in smart meter deployment. About three-quarters of households are expected to have smart meters installed within the next five years. The technology promises to help people save on electricity bills by dynamically synchronizing energy consumption to off-peak electricity bill periods. Power companies will also benefit. Real-time feedback to the grid enables utilities to initiate dynamic pricing, monitor grid losses and optimize supply performance, ultimately reducing costs and increasing profit margins.

From home to cloud

To fully achieve this goal, power companies must decide how best to transmit the massive amount of usage data from hundreds of millions of home smart meters to the cloud. There, powerful servers can analyze the data and act accordingly. In Europe, smart meters often incorporate Wireless Meter Bus (wMBus) technology. This proven technology provides short-range connectivity between an array of smart meters and a gateway to forward one-kilometer-range LPWAN data to the cloud.

Competing LPWAN technologies offer unique advantages for gateway-to-cloud wireless connectivity, but they create a dilemma. Electric utilities may be reluctant to choose only one of the two technologies for fear that they will be in trouble if they bet wrong on losing the competition and facing an outdated technology.

future-proof solutions

For example, LoRaWAN has a first-mover advantage and is relatively easy to deploy, and a single LoRa gateway can supervise thousands of end devices. However, it is not suitable for continuous monitoring purposes or low latency “real time” applications. Its transmission range or big data payload is also not as good as cellular-based NB-IoT, the main LPWAN smart meter connectivity competing technology.

With the support of the standards body 3GPP and many leading companies, NB-IoT is a future-proof standardized technology. It offers plug-and-play simplicity, security, and is ideal for fixed installations as NB-IoT technology is able to penetrate walls and other potential obstacles in basements and deep buildings where power meters are often found place.

Design flexibility and network reliability

However, with the advent of powerful gateways with both NB-IoT and LoRaWAN options, European power companies no longer need to choose between the two.

For example, German industrial IoT solutions company Lobaro has developed a gateway product that can receive wMBus metering data from hundreds of smart power meters and use NB-IoT or LoRaWAN or a combination of both to relay the data to the cloud .

This wireless M-Bus gateway selects the appropriate LPWAN based on local network availability and wireless signal coverage, providing power companies and building management with greater design flexibility and reliability.

Dual cloud connectivity also provides utilities with existing LoRaWAN installations the option to transition to cellular IoT without the need for large-scale modifications or limited to modifying LoRaWAN installations for future installations.

The power of the processor

At the heart of this gateway product is Nordic semiconductor‘s low-power nRF9160 SiP, which integrates an LTE-M/NB-IoT modem and GPS to provide the necessary computing power to monitor demanding applications.

Designed for cellular IoT, the nRF9160 SiP features a dedicated Arm Cortex-M33 applications processor, 1MB Flash and 256KB RAM, providing sufficient power and memory to support both cellular firmware as well as Lobaro’s wMBus stack and LoRaWAN firmware.

The nRF9160 SiP also has ample performance to support future gateway products. For example, it is likely that temperature and vibration sensors could be used to provide predictive maintenance capabilities.

Millions of smart meters and gateways will be deployed, making frequent battery replacements impossible. The modem and MCU of the nRF9160 SiP are designed from the ground up to optimize the power performance of IoT systems. It supports power saving features including eDRX and PSM, enabling the Lobaro Gateway to be powered by a single 3.6V battery. When metering data is sent once a day, up to 10 years of battery life can be achieved.

Looking to the future

Immediate opportunities for smart metering applications lie in billing transparency, as well as cost savings for consumers and improved grid performance, as well as cost savings for utilities. But more exciting possibilities lie ahead.

Tens of millions of cloud-connected smart meters will pave the way for big data analytics and grid intelligence at an unprecedented scale. Power companies can build AI-driven predictive models based on historical data and weather forecasts to seamlessly integrate renewable energy supplies. The technology already exists, it’s just a matter of adoption.

By Lorenzo Amicucci, Nordic Semiconductor

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