Meeting Utility Needs

Manufacturers upgrade meter designs to keep pace with industry requirements

Being the primary devices used for measuring and billing electricity consumption, meters affect utility revenues. They also play a vital role in enabling end-users to manage their electricity consumption and bills. Considering their crucial function, utilities have been encouraged to adopt and install meters based on advanced technologies to address the challenges of electricity theft, meter failure and inaccuracy in electricity billing. In light of the growing demand, the meter manufacturing industry in the country has become quite dynamic in recent years, achieving significant upgrades in the level of technology deployed in the meters.

Opportunities for manufacturers

The market for meters in India is growing at a fast pace with the demand estimated to be increasing at a compound annual growth rate of around 20 per cent. The boost in demand is partially fuelled by the low prices of meters, which are currently among the lowest across the globe. The price of a single-phase meter ranges from Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 and of a three-phase meter from Rs 2,300 to Rs 2,400.

Utilities in India are moving from simple static meters to low-power radio frequency (RF) meters and further to smart meters. Moreover, a market for meter replacements, especially for those that are more than five and a half years old, is rapidly emerging. Industry experts note that a meter is being replaced in India every four years. However, this is not desirable, considering that the life of a meter is around 10 years. Therefore, in addition to augmenting the demand for meters, improving their lifespan is also important.

In the coming years, the growth in meter demand is likely to be aided by the central government’s Integrated Power Development Scheme. The scheme, which entails an outlay of around Rs 600 million, is aimed at enhancing metering coverage in the country.  The programme aims to improve metering efficiency at all levels, including at the consumer level, the distribution transformer level and the feeder level. Further, with the impetus given by the smart grid initiative, there is an opportunity for meter vendors to offer end-to-end solutions for utilities. Although smart meters form the backbone of the initiative, analysing the data collected from the meters is equally critical. This opens up an opportunity for meter manufacturers to extend their scope of operation to collecting and analysing the data. Manufacturers can customise the process to align it with the market and utility requirements.

Technology adoption

The Indian metering industry has been making consistent efforts to offer cost-effective and reliable solutions through technological advancements. In order to provide state-of-the-art technology to consumers, manufacturers often acquire technology from overseas. In such cases, it is imperative to customise the technology to suit domestic requirements and to conform to Indian standards.

An important consideration in adopting a new technology is undertaking skill development in order to achieve results on the ground. For instance, although India was the pioneer in the electronic metering segment, meters continue to be read manually. However, in Delhi, where meters are read electronically, significant improvements have been recorded in revenues.

Another important issue to be considered when adopting a new technology is ensuring its scalability. While a technology may yield desirable results during a pilot study, it may fail upon its scope being expanded.

A pertinent issue relating to technology adoption is  ensuring that the right product is adopted for the desired application. Specifically, advanced metering is useful for high-end consumers, and normal meters with electronic reading are best suited for low-end consumers. A case in point is Manipur, which recorded a significant reduction in loss levels with the installation of prepaid meters. The loss levels in the state stood at around 77 per cent in 2006-07. In 2013, 60,000 prepaid meters were installed in the state. Within six months of the installation, the state recorded a significant increase in revenues, from Rs 31.8 million to

Rs 60.7 million. In addition, billing efficiency improved from 63 per cent to 100 per cent; the loss level declined to 44 per cent; and the manpower requirement was significantly reduced. Also, with the same quantum of power, the state could provide electricity to 12,000 consumers as against 9,300 consumers earlier. Following the success of the scheme, the state is planning to offer 24×7 power supply to consumers who opt for prepaid meters. An important factor that led to the successful adoption of the scheme in the state was the political support it received.

On the communication technology front, RF identification technology is best suited for congested areas, while global positioning system technol-ogy performs better in scattered areas. Industry experts recommend that utilities should adopt a combination of the two for best results. Through data collection, the metering industry can offer data analytics services to utilities, especially for consumers with loads of over 20 kW.

While upgrading meter designs, it is important to maintain their simplicity. Single-phase meters can be provided with displays for various parameters. However, this increases the possibility of errors occurring in the process of recording the meter readings. In order to deal with the issues faced in data collection, the same can be outsourced. For instance, in West Bengal, data collection and analysis has been outsourced to an external agency.

Standardisation of meters

From the meter manufacturers’ perspective, standardisation of meters is highly desirable. If each utility were to specify its own meter requirements, the investments made by metering manufacturers in developing new and reliable designs would be to no avail. On the flip side, a particular meter cannot suit the requirements of every utility. Therefore, although a host of detailed standard specifications would restrict utilities from making the best choice, it would be advantageous to have six to seven basic standards for meters.

Notably, specifying the functionality of the meters against design specifications is critical. In the overseas meter market, a base standard has been specified and utilities are free to add specifications to suit their needs. Therefore, a partnership approach between buyers and sellers, wherein the meters are tailor-made by the vendors to suit the long-term needs of the utilities, would be beneficial.

Other issues

Another issue facing utilities is the lack of interoperability of meters. A particular meter may not support devices from other manufacturers, thereby restricting the options at the disposal of the utility. However, a device language message specification for meters can solve the interoperability issues to a certain extent.

One of the primary factors that influence the decision of a utility in choosing from the options available is the cost of meters. Cost is one of the biggest deterrents to the adoption of smart meters for smart grids. The cost of a smart meter is contingent on the functionality desired by the utility. If the utility wants to resolve complex issues using a smart meter, the cost inevitably escalates. However, with the increasing focus on lowering the cost of meters, the quality of components used in meters is deteriorating.

Laboratory testing of meters checks for their compliance with standards; however, it does not check for performance and reliability. It has become desirable for meter manufacturers to undertake reliability checks, including highly accelerated life testing and highly accelerated stress screening tests, to check the performance of meters and to ascertain their life. Moreover, industry experts propose that the quality of meters should be accorded priority and that utilities must consider the cost of ownership of meters in the long run and not just their one-time cost.

Conclusion

In sum, meter manufacturers are constantly upgrading meter designs and adding advanced features. However, it would be beneficial for utilities to limit the replacement of meters, unless the new technology is likely to improve their performance significantly or benefit end-users in a big way.

Based on remarks by Hartinder Bhatia, Chief Executive Officer, Powertec Energy; and Sunil Singhvi, Vice-President, South Asia, Secure Meters, at a recent Power Line conference

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