The role of metering in India has evolved significantly over the years. Besides helping utilities in energy accounting and revenue management, it plays a crucial role in the reduction of power losses, integration of renewable energy and load management. The key technologies being adopted by the utilities are prepaid meters, net meters and smart meters. Although these have been in place for some time, utilities continue to grapple with challenges such as meter tampering, data handling and communication network interoperability.
A look at the metering technologies being implemented by some of the discoms…
Most utilities have installed meters with an automated meter reading (AMR) feature for bulk consumers. These meters have enabled communication of consumers’ energy consumption patterns to the utilities without the need for any manual intervention. For smaller consumers, the utilities are deploying prepaid meters instead of the static electronic energy ones. Prepaid meters are being deployed mainly in areas where it is difficult to provide a regular connection or in high-loss-making areas. Large-scale implementation of prepaid meters has not been done, particularly in rural areas where the penetration has been limited due to lack of consumer awareness. With the increase in the adoption of rooftop solar, net meters have also become important for recording the export and import of solar power by the consumer and the utility.
West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (WBSEDCL) has installed AMR for 8,400 bulk consumers. Of these, about 8,000 are already communicating data to the utility. The state utility has also installed 15,000 single-phase and 9,000 three-phase meters. WBSEDCL has, moreover, installed around 2,200 smart meters out of the 5,300 envisaged under a smart grid project.
Further, Madhya Pradesh Paschim Kshetra Vidyut Vitran Company Limited (MPPKVVCL) is deploying smart meters under the Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS) and the National Smart Grid Mission (NSGM). The utility has recently placed an order for 75,000 smart meters and the setting up of a RF canopy as the communication infrastructure for the same.
Issues and challenges
A key challenge in the adoption of these new metering technologies is the cost. The new meters are more expensive than the conventional electronic ones and hence have faced consumer resistance. Also, in areas where consumers are scattered, the installation of smart meters is not cost effective because the infrastructure is inadequate. Moreover, in regions where commercial losses are low, the benefits that accrue from smart meters do not justify the costs involved.
Apart from high costs, there are multiple players involved in a single project, thus making accountability in case of a failure a complex issue. In most cases, more than one agency is involved in the implementation of smart meters, be it a meter manufacturer, a system integrator, a manufacturer of communication infrastructure, or a service provider, and this results in multiple accountability. In case of a system failure, the damage can be minimised if there is single accountability. At the same time, single ownership is difficult. For instance, modem and SIM manufacturing are two separate businesses and may not be undertaken by a single entity.
Further, establishing a proper communication infrastructure (for connecting meters, data collector units and head-end systems) is crucial for the successful implementation of smart meters. Processing and assimilation of the huge volumes of data likely to be generated by smart meters is a major challenge for utilities. To this end, a partnership approach can help in place of a supplier-buyer approach. Globally, the partnership approach has met with success, with its design being such that the cost is built in to support 10-15 years of working of the system. It can also include long-term service contracts.
Another challenge being anticipated is difficulty in the adoption of new technologies. Since these technologies are evolving rapidly, it is important to upgrade the system so that these can be easily incorporated without affecting the existing infrastructure.
Under prepaid metering, consumers have to go to the utility office to recharge their tokens. With the integration of the recharge server with their websites, some utilities have now made online recharges possible. However, the tokens still have to be punched manually in the meters. The tokens usually have more than 40 numbers and the display gets locked in case of a wrong entry.
Another major challenge is that often there is “no display” on meters. Every month, 3-4 per cent of meters show no display. While it is believed that this happens when consumers tamper with the meters, manufacturers should take measures to overcome this issue and also be accountable for recovering the lost readings. Some kits are available for this purpose, but these can be installed at centralised places only. It is not possible to get all the faulty meters at one place, hence the service and maintenance teams need to visit all the places to check the faulty meters individually. This is an additional service by the meter manufacturer and needs to be incorporated in the tender documents.
In some cases, there are so many incidents of tampering that it becomes difficult to identify the real problem in the network. Meter tampering causes financial losses to the utility and needs to be handled at the implementation level. Anti-tampering features can be added to the meters, but that leads to an increase in the cost. In the case of smart meters, since these are already expensive, having a lot of anti-tamper features can make them cost prohibitive. Hence, utilities must identify and define their requirements. In addition to “no display”, incorrect meter readings are observed at times, resulting in higher or lower energy being billed. Meter warranties are very important in this regard.
New metering technologies are leading to the reinvention of power management and accounting. While consumers have more information about their power consumption and costs, utilities have benefited through improved billing and revenue collection. Utilities can also use the meter data for purposes other than billing. There are various applications such as demand response, network planning and peak load management that need to be put to use to fully utilise the benefits of advanced metering technologies.
While the efforts have been mostly limited to pilot projects and government programmes such as the IPDS, Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana and the NSGM, the adoption of smart and other advanced metering technologies at the national level can significantly improve the performance of the power distribution segment.
Based on a panel discussion among executives from WBSEDCL, MPPKVVCL and Paschimanchal Vidyut Vitran Nigam Limited at a recent Power Line conference