Technologies for the metering of natural gas have evolved significantly in the past decade from the traditional analog meters, which required a meter reader to take readings, to smart meters that can transmit the gas reading to the central server using a wireless network. These smart meters have an automatic meter reading (AMR) capability, which eliminates the need for a meter reader to visit the customer premises to take readings.
Currently, the Indian city gas distribution (CGD) players mostly use analog meters. However, with the advent of technology, the Indian CGD players are gradually moving towards the adoption of smart meters. For example, Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) has tied up with Tata Communications Limited to deploy about 5,000 smart gas meters in Mumbai. These meters are based on the ultra low-power, LoRaWAN network, which will enable them to send gas information wirelessly to MGL. MGL will be able to remotely monitor these meters and eliminate the need for field staff to visit customer premises for taking readings.
On the global level, North America and Europe account for the largest share of the smart gas meter market in the world. This is due to the presence of an extensive natural gas distribution infrastructure in these regions. Going ahead, there is significant potential for growth in the Asia Pacific region as their governments are increasingly focusing on expanding the gas supply infrastructure. Thus, the global gas meter market, which was valued at $3.91 billion in 2015, is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 10.5 per cent to reach $6.45 billion by 2020.
Metering in the Indian scenario
A typical Indian natural gas delivery network consists of a gas transmission line running from the gas storage station to the city gas station (CGS). The CGS has a steel pipeline which supplies gas to the compressed natural gas (CNG) station and the district regulating station (DRS). The DRS further supplies gas to domestic, industrial and commercial consumers.
CGSs in India typically have legacy meters installed at their sites. This includes turbine flow meters (TFM) and ultrasonic meters. These meters are capable of automatic reading collection and can measure gas supply to the accuracy of up to a per cent. At the CGS, gas measurements are made and billed on a fortnightly basis. At the DRS, measurements are made on a daily basis, which are generally used by the CGD utility for internal reconciliation.
For large industrial and commercial customers, TFMs and rotary positive displacement (RPD) meters are installed. Readings are taken manually and billing is done on a fortnightly basis. For small commercial customers, either RPD meters or diaphragm meters are used and billing is done on a monthly basis. Readings are collected manually and have to be corrected using a manual correction factor. On the other hand, for domestic customers, mostly diaphragm meters are used. They have an accuracy ranging between three and six per cent. Meter reading is taken manually, with billing being done on a bi-monthly basis or as decided by the CGD utility for domestic consumers. At the CNG stations, generally mass flow meters are installed and batch-wise billing is done for the supplied gas.
In India, most of the meters deployed for the piped natural gas (PNG) connections currently are imported. Only select domestic players such as Raychem RPG manufacture PNG meters. Majority of the utilities send a hard as well as a soft copy of the bills to their customers. With the evolution of technology, major CGD players such as Gujarat Gas Limited (GGL), MGL and Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) have launched online portals and mobile applications, which have made access to services and information easier for consumers. Further, customers are increasingly being provided with multiple options to deposit their bills. These include depositing the bill at the CGD utilities’ office, kiosks and service centres, through online portals and websites, using a mobile application or simply through a mobile wallet service provider.
Emerging metering technologies
With the evolution of smart meters, new technologies such as AMR are coming into play. A CGD player can either procure an AMR meter directly, which has an inbuilt meter reading capability, or it can alternatively upgrade the existing meters, which are four to five years old, by installing a meter interface unit. Meters older than five years generally are not compatible with AMR technology.
The AMR system can be directly interfaced with SAP and billing software without human intervention. Further, large volumes of data are collected which can then be analysed for getting insights into customer buying patterns, payment records and any incidents of gas theft. Additionally, alarms can be configured to detect any incidents of meter tampering. A notification can be sent to the central server, allowing operators to take necessary action.
The Indian CGD market is also witnessing the emergence of new metering technologies such as ultrasonic and thermal meters. Multiple payment options like prepaid meters are also being explored on a pilot basis by CGD utilities such as IGL. Another emerging technology is the optical character reading (OCR) device that is installed over the existing meters. This technology allows the meter readings to be directly fed into the central server using a mobile phone. This helps reduce human intervention and minimises the scope for error.
New technologies and solutions are also emerging for taking the meter reading. Meter reading collection today can be done in a walk-by, drive-by or a direct-to-server mode. In the walk-by and drive-by mode, a meter reader collects the reading just by passing through a designated route near the meter. The meter communicates the reading wirelessly to the handheld devices carried by the meter reader. This device is further connected with a mobile phone, through which the reading is sent to the central server. In the direct-to-server mode, the meter automatically shares the reading with the central server using the internet. Further, the central server can be interfaced with SAP or the billing software as required.
Advantages of using smart meters
There are a number of advantages of using smart meters over analog meters both for the consumers and the CGD utility. When smart meters are deployed appropriately, customers can be assured of receiving accurate bills as billing errors are reduced due to decrease in human intervention. They can also be provided with detailed information of their gas usage for multiple time periods. This allows them to track their consumption patterns and reduce the same. The CGD utility, on the other hand, can ensure significant cost savings as the field personnel do not have to visit customer premises to take readings. Smart meters also help detect gas leakages and thefts, thereby ensuring increased operational efficiency.
Key growth drivers for metering and billing
A number of factors are directly or indirectly driving the adoption of new technologies and solutions for metering and billing. These include the development of new CGD networks and expansion of the existing ones. Cost competitiveness of natural gas as compared to liquefied petroleum gas is also driving the uptake of new CGD projects. In addition, the need for accurately billing their customers coupled with the need to enhance operational efficiencies is pushing CGD utilities to adopt smarter metering technologies.
CGD players are increasingly using technology to reduce errors resulting from process inefficiencies and manual errors. Typically, there have been instances of wrong meter readings by meter readers. House lock cases have also been reported. Currently, the most important component in the metering and billing process is the selection of a meter that can record accurate natural gas readings. This is particularly true in the case of DRS, where a massive variation in supply pressure is generally encountered.
The metering and billing systems in India are seeing the deployment of new technologies such as AMR meters and OCR, which has improved the operational efficiency of the CGD utilities. Also, the bill collection process has become smoother due to the availability of depositing channels like kiosks, mobile wallets, etc. This is enhancing the overall experience for the natural gas consumers, while increasing the metering and billing efficiency of CGD utilities.