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IDIS Association: Fluvius – a new IDIS’ experience  

For IDIS, Jovan Vujasinovic

The second season of Smart Talks is dedicated to utilities and massive rollout.

This is the first part of the interview with Mr. Joren Moelans, who is  the technical lead for the smart meter roll-out projects at Fluvius. In previous interviews we had a chance to learn about the theory behind massive rollouts, and Mr. Moelans shared with us his experience of it in Belgium, where Fluvius (Flanders), Sibelga (Brussels), Resa and Ores (Wallonia) are rolling out smart meters. Read about the process behind the choice of technology in the following interview.

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Currently, you are responsible for strategic projects and innovation at Fluvius. Can you tell us more about your work there and about Fluvius?

First of all, there is a whole team, in charge of strategic projects and innovations and more in particular for smart metering. Fluvius is a multi-utility company (DSO) in Flanders, one of the three regions in Belgium. Electricity is our main activity, if we order it by connections. We have around 3.5 million connections for electricity. For gas, we have around 2.2 million connections.
And at the third and fourth place, we have the cable television networks where we have 540,000 connections today, and sewerage is also around 630,000 connections.
The energy law is written by each region in Belgium. The DSOs that will maintain the grids are also divided by region. For electricity and gas we cover 100% of the Flanders region but for the other disciplines, there is still room to grow - and we do grow each year. 

As for my role, I am a technologist for strategic projects, engineering, technology & innovations. We are a group of people looking for new technologies and how we can embed them in the company to make the management of our networks easier and enable innovations. And it's a wide range. It comes from smart cities and smart lighting, smart metering, EV charging infrastructure and so on. We monitor the market and see what can be embedded in and be cost-effective for Fluvius. 
Within that division, I'm responsible for the technical choices for smart metering. Technology selection, technology embedding, writing standards, including the technical specifications to standards, preparing for massive rollouts - that's my job.

You started with a massive rollout. Tell us a bit about the current situation in Fluvius?

In Belgium, we started rolling out smart meters a bit late, in 2019. After doing some testing, the decision came to do a massive rollout. The idea, at first, was to do it gradually, over the span of 15 years; not region by region, but in the whole of Flanders. Because technology changes rapidly, we decided to pick the newest technology every 5 years. However, last year the decision was made that the period of 15 years is too long for a rollout. Now in Flanders region, we need to cover 80% of all connections, gas and electricity together by end of 2024 and 100% by 2029. The last 20% is actually the most difficult, the most challenging. 

Because we need to do everything in 5 years, the technology will be the same as the one we selected in 2019. But that’s ok, because that technology is still valid. Not much has changed since then. The DSO’s of the other two regions, Walloon and Brussels, will also be doing rollouts. We as DSO companies put our heads together on Belgian level and said, “Okay, let's do the technology selection and the purchasing of these meters together, so that we have the same basic functionality.”

Your background in utility also makes you an excellent adviser on how to make a selection of adequate communication technologies for a massive rollout. How can a utility decide the appropriate technology to use? 

We made the technology selection for communication, measurements, data models and data gathering in 2018, having in mind a partial rollout. We weren’t planning to go street by street, but by grouping building-types and consumer groups, for example prepaid consumers or buildings with solar panels. The years before we had some pilot projects with PLC, we had some pilots with GPRS, we had some pilots with mobile and some tests with cable networks. 

The cable network solution was too expensive and it's a custom solution. The thing with cable connections was that not all places had cable networks. We couldn't cover the whole of Flanders with cables. We needed extra components such as coax modem, which meant extra costs and also some extra complexity in maintaining powering. What if a customer disconnects the modem?; it should be in a sealed box, and so on. It's strange because we have the cables in our hands, at least for 540.000 connections, but due to the fact that we needed extra components, the costs were just too big. 

As for PLC, I think it’s a good technology. It has some benefits in the sense that you also have the telecommunications network in your hands because it’s going through the electricity cables. And it’s a cheap technology if you can do the rollouts street by street. If not, like in our case, it would require big investing in concentrators for PLC. So, taking all that into account, we decided to go with Point to Point mobile communication. We were looking at other technologies, like Low Power Wide Area technology (LPWA). That’s a good option because you also have a network in your own hands. But at that point, the technology was not yet proven and also not proven with smart metering. So we didn't choose it. We wanted something proven. So, our real choice was between PLC, Ethernet, or mobile communication. 

The final selection was mobile communication, but what type of mobile communication? Because we had 2G, 3G or 4G - we have LTE nowadays… we knew that 2G GPRS will be phased out in Belgium. It's not a good idea to start a rollout today with GPRS in every home for the next 15 years. 3G was also not a good idea. So we said okay, let's go for 4G. So then the question was, what type of 4G? At that point, we could choose between 4G LTE cat. 1, and 4G LTE cat. NB1 which is the one we chose, cause it seemed more promising. Also, thanks to us choosing it, mobile operators are rolling out more coverage of 4G LTE cat NB1 in Flanders.

In Belgium, the coverage is very good. We’re almost at 100% coverage. The mobile network is excellent in Flanders, even in the rural areas with all of the 3 leading operators. In other regions that are covered with forests, there are issues with coverage. 

Will all the three regions do the same thing as Fluvius, in Flanders? Have you started with the installation process?

Yes, we have a strategic collaboration with Ores, Resa and Sibelga. We discussed this plan together. End of April 2021, we had 750.000 installed smart meters in Flanders, and we are confident with this choice. For harder locations, with meters underground, we’ll have to come up with a plan and we already have some loose  ideas. Today we think a second technology needs to be in place for the hard locations, referring to the 20% of meters rolled out from 2024 to 2029. This technology can be a flavor of PLC or maybe even a ethernet solution. Time will bring the answer.

How important do you think it is to have true interoperability (interchangeability) in the field, during a massive rollout?

Very important.
We are not developers of communication and meters. We choose only proven methods. However, there was no standardized meter for Europe. Every country has different legislation and coverage. This makes it difficult to develop devices that could cover all areas and thus the meters are more expensive. 

Even though there’s no “real” European standard, for “one” smart meter. there are associations that standardized protocols; a DLMS association, for example. Picture it as a store. You want to make an apple pie, but first you need the ingredients. So you go to the DLMS association, and you get all that you need to make the apple pie. Then you need the recipe, and experts to make the apple pie. On the other hand, the already-made apple pie can be found at the IDIS Association. But, let’s say that we don’t like every ingredient in the already-made apple pie, the IDIS Association will also help us create one that’s made specifically for us.

The new use cases, the fine-tuning for each country, are the important things for us and it’s something that came with IDIS. We knew we could be sure that the companion specifications and certification programs from IDIS will be ok and fine-tuned. We saw that the IDIS Association was helpful for small and medium utilities, and it was very helpful to us. 

Together with the IDIS Association, we created a work group and defined the functionalities. The usefull functionalities were later used and included in Package 3, while for the others we’ve created our country-specific use case as “add-ons” on the IDIS package 3 meter.

Conclusion: The choice of technology depends on many things: the type of rollout (street by street, by type of buildings and consumer groups, etc), how much noise and interference the PLC network has, the technology that can be applied, the level of telecommunications development in a country, how much telecom operators are willing to invest, etc. It makes the most sense to use 2 communication technologies. Also, the application of standards and certification programs are very important, and the IDIS Association only provides solution for interchangeability and interoperability for small and medium utilities.

What do you think, how can utilities make a decision when choosing a technology and be sure that they made the right choice?