Accurate metering and billing is crucial for both consumers and city gas distribution (CGD) companies. It helps consumers to track their consumption and payment, and CGD companies to track revenue generation. Energy theft through supplementary pipeline connections and meter tampering negatively impacts profit margins. Smart gas metering can help remotely track and control gas delivery devices, detect anomalies and provide real-time alerts. For instance, Itron provides technology to CGD companies to remotely collect meter readings, improve billing accuracy and reliability, and reduce labour costs, translating into reduced tariffs for customers.
The oil and gas industry is facing several challenges including inaccurate billing, inappropriate usage (commercial customers being charged at domestic rates) and revenue leakage. In order to remain economically viable in the current low-price environment, it needs to undergo operational changes. CGD companies must embrace digital technology in conjunction with analytics. The current adoption of analytics across the sector is very low. The stretch goal (number of connections) set by the government for several organisations also necessitates the deployment of smart metering and analytics-driven solutions by CGD players.
Smart metering technologies
The natural gas industry is gradually making a shift from conventional metering to smart metering solutions. In order to check their unaccounted- for gas, CGD operators are testing advanced technology solutions, smart metering devices and innovative equipment. These include automated meter reading (AMR) systems, optical corrective reading devices, thermal meters, ultrasonic meters and prepaid meters.
AMR systems have the following benefits:
- Meters can be tracked regularly
- Increased frequency of meter readings, which eliminates assessed bills leading to better cash flow
- Accurate reconciliation of meter readings between the district regulating station and end customers
- Potential to introduce variable pricing during peak hours of usage
- Better commodity purchase planning based on variability of consumption data over the days of week/months of year/seasons, etc.
- Provides accurate estimate of potential peaking based on consumption variability.
Further, operators can upgrade their billing systems through information technology solutions. Billing software such as SAP can be interfaced with AMR systems and data analytics. The meter data management system (server-based/cloud-based) can be used as an interface between meters and SAP, and can carry out analytics as per the requirement. Other measures that can be taken to control lost and unaccounted-for gas include the installation of meter regulator skid cages, electronic locks and tamper-proof seals; blocking and sealing of vent points; meter index sealing; imposition of penalties; permanent disconnection; surprise checks; and regular monitoring of consumption patterns.
Smart metering solutions
Walk-by/Drive-through solution: The walk-by/drive-through solution uses a meter interface unit (MIU). The MIU is a radio transceiver that is attached to the meter. It communicates with the portable hand-held unit carried by the meter reader. The hand-held unit must be within a radius of 500 metres of the MIU to capture the signals transmitted by it. Once the signal is received, the meter reader transfers the data to the mobile phone through a Bluetooth connection. The mobile phone transfers the data to a data cloud using GPRS signal. Globally, two kinds of solutions are available for walk-by/drive-through operations – single mode of communication and two-way communication. In the single mode of communication, the MIU continuously sends signals at specified time intervals. As a result, whenever a meter reader is present within the radius, the hand-held unit captures and transmits the data. In the two-way communication mode, the meter reader sends a signal to the MIU through the hand-held unit. The MIU gets activated and transmits the data.
Fixed meters: The fixed meter solution operates in the same way as the walk-by/drive-through solution, except that the hand-held unit is replaced by a fixed concentrator, which transmits data to the cloud using GPRS signal. This solution is preferred for high-rise buildings. External power supply and a suitable public space are needed for its installation. This solution can cater only to 10-20 domestic customers. Thus, many fixed concentrators are required for a large geographical area. One of the major advantages of this solution is that meter readers are not needed. With this solution, daily meter reading and gas reconciliation is possible. Also, real-time tampering alarms are available.
Point-to-point solution: In this solution, data from the meters is directly transferred to the cloud. It deploys an MIU with an inbuilt GPRS modem, which takes the pulse from the meter and transmits it to the cloud. The MIU used in this solution has an inbuilt LED camera, which clicks the photo of the meter index and transmits that image. This provision is quite useful as the image is converted into text and this text is readily available for billing. Further, tamper alarms are sounded in real time. Although it is a very efficient solution, it is quite expensive. In addition, over a period of time, the meter index becomes opaque and the camera efficiency deteriorates. Therefore, for longevity, this solution must be installed only in areas that do not face extreme temperatures.
Prepaid solutions: It is the most advanced solution for smart metering. Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) is the only company in the gas segment that has installed prepaid meters. Currently, prepaid meters are operational in the Rewadi geographical area and IGL plans to install this solution in Karnal, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar as well. Under this system, the meter comes with an in built valve equipped with a prepaid processor that communicates with the server on the GPRSGSM/ long range network. Customers can recharge the prepaid gas meters online and when the credit reaches zero, the meter valve automatically shuts off. One of the key advantages of this solution is that the customer gets real-time information about gas usage. Further, there are no cases of underbilling, estimated/wrong billing, reversal of bills or house-lock problems. With these solutions, it is easier to identify slow-moving/faulty meters. All in all, prepaid meters make the billing process much easier.
Mobility platform: Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) has implemented a mobility platform which allows meter reading, verification and billing. This has helped reduce complaints regarding inaccurate metering and billing.
IGL’s prepaid smart metering solution
IGL has awarded Genesis Gas Solutions a contract for the roll-out of its prepaid smart gas metering system. The new smart meters supplied by Genesis Gas Solutions, in partnership with Tata Communications’ Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) internet of things network, will enable consumers to monitor their gas use in real time against the credit available. This is the first time that this technology is being deployed by any CGD company in the country. Tata Communications already has an established LoRaWAN network in Delhi NCR, which has now been extended to Rewari. With the installation of the first 5,000 prepaid meters, IGL has been able to eliminate human errors caused by manual meter reading, optimise capacity planning and improve cash flows. Meanwhile, MGL has installed fixed AMR in the commercial segment. The accuracy was tested for more than six months before the company decided to install fixed AMR systems for all the connections.
Smart metering initiatives are gaining momentum in the energy market, driving efficiencies and enhancing customer experience. Further, when connected with IoT and other solutions in a smart city, smart meters could provide additional value-added services for the benefit of consumers as well as businesses. Besides, piped natural gas customers should be allowed to choose from among smart, AMR, prepaid, IoT or high aesthetic meters and the CGD entity should be permitted to pass on the cost to the customers for the add-on choice.