Smart meters facilitate collection, measurement and analysis of energy usage through a two-way communication system between the discom and the consumer. It is one of the key components of automated metering infrastructure and its adoption across utilities is of paramount importance to facilitate the transition to a smart grid-enabled network. In the Indian context, this technological intervention assumes greater significance owing to the need for reducing high network losses and improving system efficiency.
Essentially, a smart meter automates most, metering-centred activities. Successful functioning of a smart metering mechanism is dependent on the interoperability of several devices such as an in-home display screen, a smart meter and a meter data collection arrangement. These are linked via a communication network (WAN, LAN, NAN, etc.) that enables flow of data pertaining to energy usage. The choice of communication technology is contingent on several factors such as availability, terrain and population density. Widely used communication technologies for smart meters include radio frequency mesh-based communication systems, power line communication and GPRS.
CEA smart meter specifications
The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) released the smart meter functional specifications (only for low-cost single-phase meters) in December 2012. As per these specifications, smart meters should follow the IS 13779 and IS 15884 standards as defined by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Also, discoms have been given the option to choose their communication technology. Other functionalities that are optional include prepayment services and setting up in-home display facilities.
Further, the installation of switches has been made compulsory only for consumers with sanctioned loads of over 1 kW. This mandate helps reduce unnecessary expenditure on the part of the discoms as there is very little scope for demand-side management for consumers with loads of up to 1 kW. For both these categories of consumers, bidirectional data flow has been made optional.
Meters serving the purpose of both import and export of electricity (bidirectional flow of data) are intended to enable future integration of renewable sources with the grid. For connections served through conventional generation, an on/off switch is mandatory only for consumers with loads of more than 1 kW.
One of the primary benefits of installing a smart meter is that it helps in reducing incidents of network overload through partial load curtailment (brownouts), thus ensuring continuous power supply. This is done through a remote on/off switch. Moreover, disconnection of services in case of meter tampering, non-payment of bills and other instances can also be done. Further, backed by a comprehensive analytical framework, the utility can recognise patterns of overloading (implying power theft) and may take necessary action, including disconnection, in order to prevent such occurrences.
Smart meters help in reducing aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses. Electricity theft contributes significantly to utilities’ AT&C losses. Smart meters eliminate such occurrences as they automate the meter readings (leading to zero human error), randomly analyse these energy usage data samples and based on this, send alerts to the concerned authorities in cases involving abnormal events such as an unexpected spike in user load.
These meters also improve electricity demand management. They allow greater consumer participation by providing in-home display of tariff rates, consumption patterns, etc., thus offering an opportunity to optimise energy consumption. Moreover, smart meters can be used to reduce peak energy demand, thus ensuring better grid stability. This may be done through implementing innovative tariff structures such as peak load pricing and time-of-use tariffs.
Although smart meters offer many benefits, there are several implementation challenges as well. First, these entail substantial capex, which can be recovered only by increasing consumer tariffs, which often leads to civic unrest. In addition, the low per capita consumption in the country (less than 900 units) offers a poor business case for recovering the initial capex.
Another major challenge for smart meter installations is the absence of advanced technologies in the distribution infrastructure. These are necessary for providing a robust IT backbone for easing the installation of advanced systems such as smart meters. Other shortcomings include choosing the right communication technology, bridging the interoperability gaps between different devices, privacy-related concerns, and accessing skilled manpower to handle smart meter operations.
Deployment of smart meters requires significant participation by consumer groups during both the planning and implementation phases. Consumers need to be educated about the benefits of smart meters and the expected gains demonstrated to them through web portals, etc. in order to increase their willingness to pay for these. Lack of consumer engagement may result in negative public sentiment. There may be concerns over the project cost, the health and safety aspects of the technology used (radio frequency emissions, fire, etc.), and the strength of the privacy framework.
In order to ensure a smooth transition to smart meters, consultations must be carried out among all the concerned stakeholders, including government and regulatory bodies, discoms, consumer groups and equipment manufacturers. This would keep all entities informed about the others’ needs, thereby facilitating the formulation of a best-fit model. In addition, the utility must conduct skill enhancing programmes so that once the system is operational, time and effort are not wasted in understanding and implementing it. This would help ensure that consumers have access to the benefits of the scheme from the start. Further, a case study-based approach could be adopted for informing consumers about instances where this technology has been successfully implemented.
The way forward
The implementation of projects under the centrally sponsored Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme will facilitate the creation of a robust IT backbone for the distribution network, thereby paving the way for the installation of advanced applications such as smart meters. Further, the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, through which rural electricity distribution infrastructure is being constructed across the country, can potentially serve as a tool for adopting a bottom-up approach towards the implementation of IT-based applications, especially for industrial facilities located in rural areas.
The functional specifications defined by the CEA for smart meters augur well for network-wide implementation of smart meters. These specifications also pertain to smart meter deployments for upcoming renewable energy capacity (including solar rooftop panels), which should provide a fillip to renewable energy investments.
Going forward, the combined efforts of all stakeholders, especially end-users, are a must for the success of the smart metering initiative.
Based on a presentation by Sunil Singhvi, Vice-President, Secure Meters Limited, at a Power Line conference