Home5GThe ‘beauty’ of broadband powerline (BPL), and the advance of Germany’s energiewende

The ‘beauty’ of broadband powerline (BPL), and the advance of Germany’s energiewende

Germany has a good model for the adoption of renewable energy resources. The country has an aggressive decarbonisation agenda as part of its energiewende (‘energy transition’). It shut down seven reactors after the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011, has since closed two more, and will phase out the rest, along with coal-fired generation, in the next years.

“We rejected the ‘easy’ option of nuclear,” comments Ingo Schönberg, chief executive at Power Plus Communications (PPC), a Germany-based comms provider for smart metering and smart grids, and a pioneer in broadband powerline (BLP) communications. We will focus on BPL, momentarily, but let us continue with context-setting in the Germany energy market.

Renewables will contribute 50 per cent of Germany’s electricity mix by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2050. That is the target, as of 2015 – which should be considered remarkable, even, compared with the UK’s recent (June 2019) plan for “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050, which includes capacity for nuclear, and balances remaining carbon emissions in the small print with “carbon removal strategies”.

Germany is already at around 30 per cent, with long periods running entirely on renewables. Half of renewable power capacity in Germany has been citizen-owned for at least five years; about 20 million Germans lived in 100-per-cent renewable energy regions. “We have hundreds of utilities – about 800-900 in total,” says Schönberg. “Most are in small municipalities, and hire out their grid infrastructures to the big players.”

Schönberg – distributed energy generation in Germany

As of 2013, the German government has spent €1.5 billion per year on research to solve technical issues raised by energy tran- sition. These investments have gone into a number of pilot projects, as part of various funding cycles, which have tested mechanisms such as low-voltage last-mile capacity, smart domestic appliances, EVs for energy storage, and ways to further divide the grid to help with load balancing.

The latest funding programme, called SINTEG (translated as Smart Energy Showcases – Digital Agenda for the Energy Transition), aims to set up large-scale showcase regions for balancing supply from volatile energy sources, such as wind or solar. The project is being funded with €200 million from the German Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) and €500 million from the private sector.

“The projects seek to develop blueprints for a smart renewables-based electricity supply that can then be rolled out on a wider scale,” says BMWi. Through all of its experimentation, Germans distribution grid has remained stable. “In spite of our complex generation issues, outages are pretty rare and the grid is highly efficient – among the most reliable in the world,” adds Schönberg.

Germany has also moved decisively on the issue of data privacy in connected energy monitoring systems, legislating that a ‘gateway administrator’, contained in a certified ‘smart meter gateway’ device, is required in home to manage the two-way flow of citizens’ energy data, which can be shared or retained as householders prefer.

PPC is deeply engaged, as provider of the only (at writing) certified smart meter gateway on the market. More interestingly, as Enterprise IoT Insights writes about various incoming cellular based communications technologies for energy markets, PPC is spearheading the deployment of BPL networks, as an alternative or complement to technologies like LTE and 5G on one hand and NB-IoT and LTE-M on the other.

BPL is a recent upgrade to narrowband powerline communications (PLC) networks, which have propped up the smart metering market to date. Cellular ranks a lowly fourth when it comes to connecting electricity meters, according to ABI Research. Three in five electric meters (59 per cent) are connected with PLC, as of 2018, it says, compared with sliver-like shares for the rest, and just 15 per cent for cellular tech.

Smart metering grew up on PLC, starting in Italy, the breakout market for meters. But powerlines have been found wanting as a connectivity technology, at least in its narrowband form, when tasked with more advanced metering. Indeed, the growth is with alterna tives, according to ABI – PLC connections will jump around two-thirds in the next decade, compared with the well over 100 per cent growth for the market, as a whole, and more than three times growth for cellular and non-cellular direct WAN connections.

But, BPL brings new life to the power line market. PPC, the Germany based powerline provider, says it delivers distinct advantages over other technologies. Here, in full, is the transcript of the interview with PPC pair Ingo Schönberg and Eugen Mayer, respectively chief executive and chief operations officer at the firm, for Enterprise IoT Insights recent Making Industry Smarter report on the energy and power sector (see Keeping the Lights on with Green Power).

They explain why BPL is such a powerful technology for homes, and for service providers connecting to them.

How widely deployed is BPL – in Germany, and outside Germany?

Schönberg: “The largest deployment in Germany so far was in Modellstadt Mannheim with 3,000 homes. Outside Garmany, Kahramaaa’s deployment in Qatar connects 12,000 electricity and water meters, with BPL. E.ON is in the process of a 200,000 home rollout based on BPL. Our partners have also deployed BPL networks in Switzerland, Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey, Middle East and North Africa.”

How do data rates compare with LTE and 5G, and is BPL sufficient for future data needs on grids /meters?

Mayer – BPL is stable and robust against inerference

Mayer: “Data rates are certainly sufficient for the applications in discussion. More importantly, BPL has the advantage of being stable and robust against interference (1,000 OFDM carrier frequencies making it very hard to disrupt) secure (using IPv6) and with a much lower total cost of ownership.”

Why isn’t everyone deploying BPLC?

Schönberg: “Until recently, broadband-type data rates weren’t really needed for utility and DNO applications. Narrowband, though prone to interference, was okay – you could always repeat short bursts of signal until they made it through. Now, smart metering and other data hungry applications are driving the need to be able to transfer real-time or near real-time data in the grid.”

Can you run home broadband on BPL?

Mayer: “In-home BPL runs to different sets of standards to Access BPL IEEE 1901 – what we use for industrial-level smart grid. But yes: in-home BPL products are mainstream – you can buy them supermarkets here, not just electronics stores – and work on essentially the same principle of using the power cables to transmit data.”

Are many grid operators running private wireless networks? Most seem to be using public cellular networks.

Schönberg: “This is quite a new solution, and major telcos including Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica are working on this model.”

How complex is the task of load balancing to manage distributed power generation, and the rise of renewables?

Schönberg: “Very. Germany has led the way in integrating renewables. In order not to overload the grid, it is necessary [at times] to shed power and switch off generation. When only intermittment signals and limited control systems are in place, this process is often less subtle – just switching of half the turbines for an hour. A lot of the work being done is to streamline that.”

How hard is data collection and management in connected, bi-directional energy systems? How can grid operators solve this?

Mayer: “You need a constant two-way flow of data around the grid to identify supply and demand status, and respond by controlling devices in the grid. The beauty of BPL communications is all parts of the low and medium voltage power grid are, by definition, connected by powerlines. If you use the lines themselves as the comms channel, you only need to connect modems and sensors – you have your comms with no additional communications infrastructure. The alternative is to set up private wireless networks, and that means equipping devices with SIMs. Interference is a problem with wireless, as well.

“BPL is being enhanced all the time, and distances that can be covered – while limited to a few hundred metres per ‘hop’ – can cover a wide network. For longer hops, we have developed a BPL-LTE router that transfers the local powerline data to the backbone. Another advantage is you form a self-healing meshed network using the powerlines – if one line is carrying the signal weakly, or is broken, or else suffering from a lot of noise, the modems can re-route the flow of communication by using another line.”

How sophisticated is operation / management of the electric grid today in Germany, compared with other countries in Europe?

Schönberg: “In spite of our complex generation issues, outages are pretty rare and the grid is highly efficient – among the most reliable in the world. We have hundreds of utilities – about 800-900 in total. Most are in small municipalities, and hire out their grid infrastructures to the big players. We rejected the ‘easy’ option of nuclear chosen by France, for example – easy because the suppy of power is constant and predictable. We have encouraged local renewable generation more than any other country.”

What does the grid require in terms of connectivity, now and in future – in terms of fixed (fibre) and wireless networks, including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, LPWA, LTE, and 5G?

Mayer: “Undoubtedly a hybrid of these things. 5G, while powerful, lacks the range. It [will be more] useful in urban applications. Countries like Spain and Italy are using Narrowband PLC everywhere, which was great for occasional remote meter reading and switching but will never achieve anything like real-time comms. For years the unicorn of ‘faster narrowband’ has been pursued, but it looks like now that’s being abandoned and BPL is preferred. Wireless is great for the WAN, but carries with it the costs of ownership. But this is a big question.”

How will all the data be organised and managed in real time – on-premise and in the cloud?

Schönberg: “In the German model we have a new actor: the ‘gateway administrator’, to manage the meter data needed by the utility for billing, and anonymised data for things like usage analysis – or tariffing, which we currently don’t have – which is collected and distributed by the ‘smart meter gateway’. Only the householder gets their own detailed usage data,. They can share that with smart home providers and utilities, if they choose – which opens up all sorts of new service offerings such as controllable local systems (CLSs).”

What does the grid require in terms of edge compute functions? Where will this be?

Mayer: “Eventually other countries will need devices equivalent to the ‘smart meter gateway’, and one way to achieve this will be to develop an open edge platform that can be adapted for use in local conditions and requirements.”

Which is the most advanced grid operation in Germany?

Schönberg: “E.ON is probably the most advanced operators. It is poised to begin the full roll out of smart meter gateways. The regulations dictate that there must be three certified smart meter gateways on the market before roll out begins – so far there is just one, ours.” 

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