Despite a great deal of buzz around the use of PLC (OFDM) communication modules in smart electricity meters, IMS Research predicts that revenues from the sale of such meters will make up less than 4% of advanced electricity meter revenues in 2016. PLC S-FSK, FSK, and other technologies with data rates less than 10 kbps are forecast to remain the dominant PLC technology and grow to roughly $2.8 billion in 2016—over 48% of worldwide advanced electricity meter revenues. There are several inhibitors to a faster adoption of PLC (OFDM) technology: higher relative power consumption, inherently lengthy timeframes to adopt a new technology, and relatively low data throughput for PLC (OFDM) electricity meters judging from performance in current pilots.
PLC (OFDM) (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) modules for smart electricity meters come in several varieties (e.g. PRIME, G3-PLC, etc.) that typically have data rates greater than 10 kbps and theoretical upper limits that approach or surpass 300 kbps. PLC FSK, S-FSK, and other variations typically have data rates less than 10 kbps.
Smart meter implementations are supposed to increase energy efficiency and reduce costs. However, interviews with suppliers familiar with PLC (OFDM) smart electricity meter installations suggest that such meters use so much power that those twin goals are undermined. In Spain, for example, installed electricity meters that use PLC (OFDM) reportedly use as much as an additional five to ten watts of electricity while PLC S-FSK electricity meters only use about 1 or 2 watts of electricity. In addition, there is evidence that current PLC (OFDM) installations have similar or poorer performance than existing PLC (<10 kbps) installations. For example, in France, ERDF’s smart PLC (OFDM) electricity meters have faced issues with all meters attempting to communicate simultaneously. Chinese suppliers noted that the performance difference between PLC (OFDM) and PLC (S-FSK) in actual installations were so similar that it was not worth the extra cost to make the transition.
While these technical issues currently represent the primary inhibitor to PLC (OFDM) adoption, even in their absence the multi-year process required to make the shift to a new meter communication technology would slow down any transition. First, existing contracts for the installation of PLC FSK and S-FSK electricity meters must be fulfilled. Then governments, meter manufacturers, and utilities must coordinate successfully to begin the transition to a new technology. And finally, there’s the need to iron out any technical difficulties or malfunctions that can often only be identified after an installation is rolled out.
PLC (OFDM) electricity meters have several hurdles to overcome before widespread adoption is a possibility. In particular, the cost of increased energy consumption must be either reduced or offset by value generated elsewhere (for example through improved home area network integration or other added functionality). The electricity meter market has made many technological transitions, however, the payoff must be more clear before PLC (OFDM) begins to replace the PLC (<10 kbps) communication technologies more aggressively.