A robust metering infrastructure is essential for strengthening the power distribution segment. Efficient metering practices help maintain the financial health of a utility. These include accurate billing and the prevention of power theft, which have been the focus areas for utilities. These practices also help lower the aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses of discoms. Besides, meters have become a key source of valuable consumer information. With the emergence of new metering technologies, utilities are transitioning from basic static meters to smart meters. Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), automated meter reading, prepaid meters and net meters are the key technologies that are being increasingly adopted. These meters allow a two-way exchange of information, automate processes such as meter reading, and enable the accounting of electricity drawn from and supplied to the grid by a rooftop solar photovoltaic consumer. These have helped in improving metering efficiency, billing accuracy, revenue management and customer satisfaction.
The transition from electromechanical to electrostatic meters was one of the first steps towards improving consumer metering. Over the next two to three years, various utilities including Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited and Paschim Gujarat Vij Company Limited are expected to operate entirely on electrostatic meters. Now, the utilities are also increasingly adopting smart metering and AMI. Smart meters are an integral part of all the smart grid projects being undertaken in India including the smart grid pilot projects initiated by the Ministry of Power, projects under the National Smart Grid Mission and the smart city projects. Further, various government programmes such as the Integrated Power Development Scheme and the Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana also provide for the installation of smart meters.
Smart metering improves billing efficiency, consumer monitoring, and load and demand management. It also allows a utility to remotely connect and disconnect the consumer, and undertake better demand-side management. The use of AMI and smart meters results in the generation of a huge amount of data that helps in better system performance monitoring, network analysis and system planning, billing, prevention of tampering, and outage detection and notification.
As a common practice, most utilities are undertaking pilot projects for the implementation of smart meters and AMI in order to assess better the technologies available, applications of various features of the technologies, the costs and benefits involved, and the rate of return on investment. With respect to smart meters and smart grids, there is no one optimal solution for all utilities/areas/consumer categories/geographies. For communication of data from smart meters to a utility and vice versa, there are a number of technologies available including power line communication, mesh network, the use of internet-based systems and general packet radio service (GPRS). Further, there are several applications of the data obtained through smart metering like peak load management, outage management, demand response, etc.
Tata Power has implemented an automated demand response (ADR) project with smart meters in Delhi. It is one of the first projects in the world where ADR and AMI have been conceptualised together. The project has been implemented in partnership with IBM, Honeywell, and Landis+Gyr, with participation from select industrial and commercial consumers of Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited. BSES also plans to implement a pilot project for about 5,000 consumers, which will ensure reliable meter reading without any manual intervention, and web-based access to meter data by both consumers and the utility. The utility has planned to opt for power line carrier communication/radio frequency (RF) along with GPRS/long-range radio for the project. Several other utilities including CESC Limited, Southern Power Distribution Company of Telangana Limited and Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited are also implementing pilot projects that involve the installation of smart meters.
Net metering is the key policy instrument being used by the government to stimulate private investments in rooftop solar. It is essentially an accounting principle wherein the final electricity bill of the consumer is generated based on the bidirectional flow of electricity, including the amount drawn from and supplied to the grid. Under net metering, bidirectional meters are installed that record the power generated by a solar rooftop system and fed into the grid, and the power consumed by the “prosumer” from the grid. Consumers with net meters are required to pay only for the difference of units as per the tariff decided by the utility concerned. Almost all states have come up with their net metering policies, under which utilities are installing net meters.
Prepaid meters operate on a “no use, no pay” principle wherein consumers pay for their electricity consumption in advance. It improves collection efficiency, reduces working capital requirements for utilities and provides greater flexibility to consumers while budgeting consumption. Over 15 states have deployed prepaid meters. Delhi was among the first few states, with the installation of over 3,000 prepaid meters for domestic consumers in 2005 by BSES. Further, in 2007, the state government issued a memorandum to convert all government office connections below 45 kW into prepaid metering in view of the non-payment of bills by government departments, mounting arrears and difficulties in disconnecting government connections following the non-payment of bills. This significantly helped in improving the collection from government connections.
Manipur also presents an excellent example of the potential of prepaid meters. It recorded a significant reduction in loss levels after the installation of prepaid meters. The erstwhile Electricity Department of Manipur (now known as Manipur State Power Distribution Company Limited) too introduced prepaid meters as a pilot project in 2011-12 in the state’s high-consumption areas (Paona Bazaar and Thangal Bazaar), with approximately 20,000 consumers. Since then, the utility has ordered about 200,000 prepaid meters. The monthly revenues from power supply have increased from Rs 55 million-Rs 60 million to about Rs 105 million following the deployment of prepaid meters. In areas where prepaid meters have been installed, the billing and collection efficiency has gone up to 100 per cent with no commercial losses. A key factor that has contributed to the success of the initiative is that the state government linked prepaid meters with improved power supply. The use of prepaid metering has the potential to improve revenue collection, especially in high-loss areas, and from government office connections with late payment and non-payment issues, temporary connections such as parks, marriage halls, fares, etc., weekly bazaars and government quarters where the actual consumer of electricity changes frequently.
High security seals
High AT&C losses have been a perennial problem for the power distribution segment. While some part of these losses are inevitable, a significant part accounted for by theft, pilferage and the unauthorised use of electricity can be controlled and curtailed. Although technologies including smart metering and prepaid metering help in improving the billing process and collection of revenues, they face the challenge of meter tampering. Meter tampering is one of the key factors affecting the efficiency and revenue of any utility. As a measure to prevent meter tampering, utilities use meter seals. However, consumers many a times remove the seal, and get a lookalike or use water and blade to slice the seal intact, or slit the seal and tamper with the meter readings.
In order to counter these tampering techniques, several utilities including BSES, Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam Limited, Ajmer Vidyut Vitran Nigam Limited, Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited, Torrent Power Limited, Dakshinanchal Vidyut Vitran Nigam Limited, Uttarakhand Power Corporation Limited and the Central Electricity Supply Utility of Odisha now use high security energy meter seals. These seals are almost impossible to remove intact and extremely difficult to replicate. For instance, the seals may have holograms, a simple and easy identification mark for distinguishing an original product from a fake, but at the same time, these are difficult to copy, cannot be effectively scanned, photocopied/photographed, and cannot be removed or reused.
Other elements of high security seals include security printing and variable information. Security printing consists of features like invisible printing, colour shifting, tamper evidencing continuity lines and security cuts. Variable information could include 2D/3D barcodes or data matrix, variable codes that change with serial numbers, invisible serial numbers – visible under UV light, and laser-marked serial numbers. These seals can be affixed like any other label and they can be applied at the consumer’s premises by the linesmen or at the utility-end prior to the issue of the meter to a consumer or at the vendor’s end itself prior to the despatch of meters to utilities.
Metering practices involve huge costs and require technological expertise. Hence, they have been and are being implemented by utilities that have sufficient finances, or have the know-how to implement them. Some utilities are also implementing smart metering pilot projects with support from government and technology companies. Going ahead, enabling government policies as well as learnings from ongoing pilot projects are expected to provide the required boost to these metering practices.