Preventing Pilferage: Discom experience in tackling meter tampering and power theft

Discom experience in tackling meter tampering and power theft

Despite relentless efforts by discoms, the aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses remain exceptionally high. Meter tampering and electricity theft are among the leading causes of commercial losses. Technology upgrades and increased vigilance have yeilded positive results, but the situation remains

worrisome, especially in certain Tier III cities and consumer categories. Consumers have been adopting a variety of techniques to influence electricity bills. Traditional ways to bypass meters include simple techniques like direct hooking on bare overhead lines or distribution boxes, using magnets and inserting foreign materials.

To control pilferage, most utilities have replaced electromechanical meters with tamper-proof electronic meters. Some have installed composite meters and prepaid meters in theft-prone high density urban areas. The installation of low tension (LT) aerial bunched cables (ABCs) has emerged as one of the most popular solutions for high-loss areas. Periodic testing and rating of meters is at the core of the theft prevention strategies of utilities.

Going forward, the investigation efficiency of utilities is expected to improve as more smart technologies are incorporated into the grid. Analytics tests can be run on the consumption data collected through automated meter reading (AMR) to identify meters with suspect usage. One of the biggest challenges utilities are encountering is with respect to the shortage of efficient and motivated manpower for undertaking inspections. Moreover, with consumers coming up with new ways of meter tampering, checking theft requires continuous innovation. Distribution utilities share their experiences and views on meter tampering and power theft in their respective areas…

How severe is the problem of power theft in your discom area? How has it changed over the years?

Dipankar Behera
Deputy General Manager (Technical),
Central Electricity Supply Utility of Odisha (CESU)

Power theft through meter tampering and bypassing is prevalent in rural as well as urban areas. The occurrence of theft by hooking is present mostly in rural areas, mainly due to inaccessibility and delayed action from the administrative side. However, over the years, the situation has changed for the better due to constant follow-up actions and public awareness.

N.K. Jain
General Manager (Procurement), Madhya Pradesh Poorv Kshetra Vidyut Vitran Nigam Limited (MPPKVVNL)

Even though power theft continues to persist, it has reduced significantly over the years. This is evident from the decline in the utility’s AT&C losses, which are around 23 per cent at present as compared to about 50 per cent seven or eight years back. The decline in commercial losses is a major reason for the reduction in the total AT&C losses as technical losses cannot be reduced beyond a certain limit.

Earlier, the distribution infrastructure included naked lines and bare conductors. There were joints in system lines and meters were installed inside the premises of consumers. These factors were facilitating power theft. Consumers could hook on to bare conductors, directly connect the load to the joints in the system wires and use magnets to influence the working of the electromechanical meters. Over the years, we have adopted various technologies that have helped us significantly curtail incidents of theft and bring down the losses to their present figures.

B. Seshu Kumar
Director, Operations, Eastern Power Distribution
Company of Andhra Pradesh Limited (APEPDCL)

APEPDCL’s AT&C losses were 15.17 per cent in 2004-05, which came down to 6.87 per cent in 2014-15. Of this, transmission and distribution losses were 6.32 per cent and commercial losses 0.55 per cent. The number of registered theft cases has been decreasing over the past three years. They came down from 11,064 in 2013-14 to 9,575 in 2014-15 and 8,301 in 2015-16 (till January 2016). With this, the amount realised by the discom has increased from Rs 252.9 million in 2013-14 and Rs 241.1 million in 2014-15 to Rs 385.6 million in 2015-16 (till January 2016).

Of the total cases registered in 2015-16, 1,241 were of direct tapping (resulting in a realisation of Rs 15.4 million), 832 cases were pilferage (Rs 80.7 million), 913 cases were attributed to the unauthorised use of electricity (Rs 23.6 million), 4,265 cases were regarding the non-payment of development charges (Rs 133.2 million) and 1,050 cases were of back-billing (Rs 132.7 million).

The discom’s commercial losses are either due to theft or stuck/burnt meters. Its AT&C losses are reducing year on year due to the steps taken for strengthening the distribution network by replacing old jointed conductors, replacing old distribution transformers (DTs) with five-star-rated DTs, installing capacitor banks at substations, deploying high voltage distribution systems for segregating agricultural loads, installing load monitoring units on agricultural feeders and wedge connectors for conductor joints, bifurcation of overloaded feeders, remote metering at all feeders, monitoring, etc. In addition, work under the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (R-APDRP) Part A and Part B is being done in all towns and high-loss distribution areas under APEPDCL. This covers the entire network, from 33 kV to LT lines, to improve services for 5.2 million connections.

Commercial losses have been further reduced by the timely replacement of burnt/stuck meters through data obtained from IT-enabled services, and by the replacement of electromechanical meters with highly accurate electronic meters that have an infrared port to avoid reading suppression.

Praveer Sinha
Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director,
Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited (TPDDL)

TPDDL, which supplies electricity in North and Northwest Delhi, is determined to stop the menace of power theft in the distribution network by using fool-proof technology interventions. Over the years, through the deployment of cutting-edge technologies along with measures like improvements in billing and collection efficiency, we have reduced AT&C losses to 9 per cent from 53 per cent in 2002. AT&C loss is an aggregate of distribution (technical) and commercial losses due to technical line losses, pilferage of electricity, poor billing efficiency, faulty meter reading and inadequate revenue collection. Of these, technical line losses and pilferage of electricity contribute the maximum to the overall AT&C losses. During the early years of our takeover in 2002-03, direct electricity theft was predominant; however, now meter tampering cases are being reported more often.

Direct theft cases have been controlled over the years by replacing bare conductors with insulated conductors, needed ABCs, to stop direct tapping. Direct theft of electricity is common in the city’s border areas and consumers put up huge resistance when raids are conducted for detecting theft or meter tampering. In some of these areas, we were not allowed to change electromechanical meters, which are very prone to tampering, and unscrupulous elements have punctured many ABC lines to tap electricity during odd hours. However, over the years, by changing the bare conductors and installing advanced technology meters, direct theft of electricity and meter tampering have been reduced. As a result of these efforts, single-digit AT&C losses have been achieved.

BSES spokesperson

At the time of the privatisation of the erstwhile Delhi Vidyut Board, AT&C losses in the BSES area were over 55 per cent. Today, they have come down to around 15 per cent, a massive reduction of over 40 per cent in just about 13 years. Still, there are areas in West and East Delhi like Najafgarh, Jaffarpur, Mundka, Seelampur, Nandnagari, Yamuna Vihar and Karawal Nagar where power theft continues to be a concern. It is also a concern in some unauthorised colonies like Shaheen Bagh.

The massive reduction and containment of power theft in BSES’s area is because of sustained efforts. The massive loss reduction and efficiency initiatives brought in by BSES’s discoms have resulted in huge benefits of around Rs 350 billion to the Delhi government and the citizens.

What are the key initiatives undertaken by the discom to prevent meter tampering? What are the technology options available in this regard?

Dipankar Behera

Some key initiatives taken by the discom include the formation of independent vigilance squads, establishment of energy police stations in every district and regular action by squads at the subdivisional level. In addition, the Central Electricity Supply Utility of Odisha has undertaken massive installation of electronic meters, prepaid meters and automated meter reading (AMR) to technologically upgrade the entire system to ensure better monitoring and curtailing of power theft.

N.K. Jain

We have undertaken a range of initiatives to control meter tampering and power theft. We have replaced electromechanical meters with static electronic meters and intelligent meters. Tam-pering can now be easily detected by analysing the data retrieved from such meters. The meters have also been provided with covers; push-fit boxes secured with polycarbonate seals have been deployed for this purpose. Once these boxes have been fixed (closed) by discom personnel at the time of installation, they can be opened only by breaking them. In addition, transparent plastic meter boxes are being used to provide ease of monitoring as any tampering will be visible from the outside.

In addition, single-core service lines have been replaced with twin-core armoured cables. The armouring prevents any sort of nailing by the consumer for power theft. Meters that were initially installed inside consumer premises have now been shifted to the main entrance of the house (call bell location). This allows easy monitoring and also creates a societal/moral pressure on consumers, acting as a deterrent to tampering and power theft.

Going forward, in order to access the data being recorded by meters, we plan to change the communication mode from optical and infrared data association to low power radio (LPR). The LPR mode has two frequency bands that are free: 2.4 GHz and 865-867 MHz. We are planning to work in the frequency band of 865-867 MHz. This will allow us a wireless communication facility for meter reading from a distance of about 100 metres without disturbing the meter box set-up. We will also build a hopping facility into the system, in which nodes and internodes are created. For instance, if we need to access data from a meter that is situated 200 metres away, and if there are also other meters between the two points, such a facility will allow the reading of the desired meter by treating the middle meters as an interface.

With this technology, a wireless meter reading of any meter situated within a distance of 500 metres can be recorded. Hence, in areas with dense populations, readings of several meters can be taken from a single location. Monitoring will easily be done by means of GPRS and GSM directly on the discoms’ server. Such a system will allow us to bring our meters online, record real-time data and easily identify incidents of meter tampering and power theft and take immediate action against the defaulters.

B. Seshu Kumar

Over the past decade, APEPDCL has replaced all electromechanical meters with electronic meters that have an infrared port. The utility has introduced high tension (HT) metering for special category consumers like prawn culture services. Intelligent automated meter readers have been introduced for all HT service meters for identifying any tampering, etc. Information is collected through an online facility. It is also undertaking regular, continuous and strict vigilance, which includes inspections by the Detection of Pilferage of Energy wing and night raids.

Praveer Sinha

As the meter is the cash box for a discom, any kind of tampering with meters directly affects its performance and impacts AT&C losses. Earlier meters were manufactured only with the objective of recording electrical energy consumption. Over the years, it has been seen that only recording of electrical energy is not sufficient as tampering and manipulation of monthly consumption have been rampant. Keeping these facts in mind, many innovative steps have been taken to install tamper-proof or tamper-evident electronic meters. Initially, energy meters had only one current transformer (CT) for phase current measurement but over time, two CT meters were introduced for measuring both phase and neutral current to take care of any manipulation through neutral circuit.

As a next step, three CT meters, commonly known as third CT or common CT meters, have been installed to have backup supply to the meter printed circuit board. However, in all these meters, there was no option to store data inside the meter and hence, meters with data storage capability have since been introduced. Although these meters could store voltage, current, energy and power factor with billing dates, some consumers, at times in connivance with unscrupulous elements, managed to use a device through which the recording could be tampered with, without any physical tampering. To catch this type of tampering, commonly known as soft tampering, sensors have been incorporated inside the meter to identify the tampering in data with the provision of having event logging with the date and time stamp. These meters are now not only tamper-proof but also tamper-evident.

Meters have also been made capable of communicating remotely for downloading data and for billing. With these latest meters, the identification of tampering can be done remotely by analysing the data recorded. An independent meter testing laboratory has also been established for research and development of energy meters with the latest available technologies to test them against the tamper devices available in the grey market. Some of the parameters in the latest energy meters are as follows:

  • Display parameter: Specific display parameters have been given in the meter display to identify the signature indication of tampering.
  • Event logging: Logging of different events to identify different abnormal conditions or influences like electrostatic discharge.
  • Cover open indication: If the meter body or cover is opened by a consumer to manipulate consumption, it will be recorded and displayed.

BSES spokesperson

BSES’s discoms rely heavily on advanced technology and analytics for power theft identification. One of the methods is comparing the energy input at over 11,000 DTs in the BSES area and correlating the same with energy consumption at the consumer end.

The data downloaded from individual consumer meters is analysed through intelligent meter data analytics, making use of energy usage patterns across various consumer categories. The patterns are analysed for any deviations that indicate theft or unauthorised use. Leads are generated and then passed on to the enforcement teams, which are especially equipped to deal with electricity theft.

Yet another method of theft detection is by analysing individual meter data. In BSES’s area, meter data is electronically downloaded by meter readers. Apart from billing purposes, other kinds of data stored in the meter memory is analysed for clues to fraudulent abstraction by consumers. BSES is among the few utilities in the country that is using downloaded meter information for identifying possible theft.

BSES’s discoms have also developed a meter data analytics module, which helps in meter theft analysis, in addition to generating useful operational reports related to quality and network health. It uses various techniques and maturity models. The discoms also run a sustained campaign to inform consumers about the various evils of power theft and how it adversely affects honest consumers.

What are some of the key challenges faced by discoms in preventing meter tampering and power theft?

Dipankar Behera

One of the key challenges we face is the lack of coordination and cooperation by the district administration. This is compounded by the lack of motivation among employees and the paucity of vigilance squads with adequate skills.

N.K. Jain

Consumer resistance is the key challenge that hinders the adoption of any new practice or system to reduce meter tampering. Generally, there is political interference to prevent the adoption of technology initiatives by the discom. In addition, there is a need for us to develop the supporting infrastructure to meet loss limits as directed by our regulators. As per the guidelines of the Madhya Pradesh Electricity Regulatory Commission, we need to bring losses down to 19 per cent by the end 2015-16. Hence, we will continue to innovate and take steps to reduce losses and provide quality and reliable power to our consumers.

B. Seshu Kumar

APEPDCL has to overcome a number of challenges for preventing meter tampering. Monitoring power is a challenging task given the vast area under its jurisdiction, especially in remote locations that are inaccessible and lack safety for night-time inspections. The ratio of services to available manpower has increased over the years. Meanwhile, operational requirements are diverting focus away from power theft vigilance and the lack of advanced digital means for theft detection is a hurdle as well.

Praveer Sinha

Over the years, metering technology has improved manyfold, but new ways of meter tampering have also emerged at an equal pace. People involved in meter tampering are always one step ahead to neutralise the new technology incorporated in energy meters. We try to ensure regular checks and updates on the duplication of low quality chips or hardware (from the grey market), which helps us to keep innovating on technology to safeguard the cash box. Taking a stand against power theft, TPDDL registered 6,700 FIRs regarding power theft, amounting to nearly Rs 420 million during 2014-15. Of this, the company has managed to recover close to Rs 120 million. The proactiveness of the company, both in registering FIRs and follow-up action to recover the lost amount, has immensely benefitted its customers in the form of lower power tariffs as well as reliable power supply. The company plans to pursue its battle against power theft as it is imposing a burden on honest consumers. So far, in 8-10 cases there have been convictions  by the Special Electricity Court for stealing electricity. In 2015-16, cases of power theft have been reported mainly against domestic consumers (6,218 cases booked), commercial consumers (674 cases booked) and JJ consumers (309 cases booked). Third Party Laboratory has already validated around 2,728 dishonest abstraction of electricity (DAE) cases in 2014-15 with a load of 8,507 kW, and 3,169 DAE cases have been validated in 2015-16 till January 2016 with a load of 20,415 kW. With the proactive steps of the company, power theft should reduce over a period of time.

BSES spokesperson

BSES’s discoms are facing challenges in tackling power theft in certain pockets of West and East Delhi. In these areas, residents have thwarted the attempts of BSES inspection teams to check irregularities on many occasions. Whenever the teams reach these areas, unscrupulous elements don’t let them check their premises and sometimes even attack and assault them.

Till 2009, Delhi discoms had the services of the Central Industrial Security Force at their disposal while conducting inspections in sensitive areas. Their personnel would accompany discom officials while they undertook raids in sensitive areas. This enabled them to enter any area, however risky, without fear. Even now, the discom inspection teams are often accompanied by Delhi Police personnel, who are extending their full cooperation. But in the absence of dedicated support from law enforcement agencies, these officials often come under heavy attack, impairing their ability to check theft.

Another challenge is the use of technology by residents to tamper with meters. Discoms are trying to counter this with technology improvements on their part.