For city gas distribution (CGD) companies, efficiency in business operations is essential to remain profitable. However, the expanding gas pipeline network and customer base have placed a tremendous burden on the existing infrastructure. The increasing instances of incorrect meter readings (either by meter readers or due to faulty meters) and house lock cases are being reported, leading to losses in revenue. Pipeline leakages and incorrect billing due to mismatches between gas supplied and consumed are some of the other concerns that plague CGD operators. Against this backdrop, gas utilities have started recognising the need for business process automation and advanced technologies to bring down costs and increase efficiency.
Initiatives by CGD companies
To reduce the scope of errors resulting from manual operations, two major CGD operators – Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) and Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) – have taken various initiatives to digitise and automate processes. For instance, IGL has deployed 5,000 prepaid smart gas meters in the Rewari geographical area. These meters are equipped with ultra-low power wide area network (LoRaWAN) technology that provides end-to-end coverage in the city. Readings from these meters are communicated via radio frequency protocols directly to servers. This has helped IGL overcome some key limitations such as locked premises, estimated/incorrect billing, reversal of bills and tampering of meters. Meanwhile, the prepaid payment facility has enabled customers to monitor their gas use on a real-time basis against available credit, thus paving the way for greater operational efficiency.
MGL, too, is planning to take up a pilot project for the installation of 5,000 smart gas meters based on LoRaWAN technology in Mumbai. To this end, it tied up with Tata Communications in April 2018. With the deployment of these meters, MGL will be able to remotely monitor usage, which will eliminate the need for field staff to visit customer premises to take readings. An interactive online dashboard will also be provided along with the meters that will enable households and businesses to regularly access their gas usage data. Another innovative solution introduced by both IGL and MGL is the advanced meter reading (AMR) walk-by system. The system uses radio frequencies to record meter readings as and when a meter reader walks by a designated route near a meter. The reading is then communicated wirelessly from the meter to the handheld device carried by the meter reader. This device is further connected to a mobile phone, through which the reading is transmitted to the central server. IGL has deployed these systems at field regulating stations to monitor the level of gas supply and consumption by domestic, commercial and industrial customers.
Further, IGL has automated compressed natural gas (CNG) dispensers using IT solutions such as SAP. The software provides a data analytics facility through which a monthly gas balance sheet can be generated. Also, transaction details, the pressure at the dispenser end, and station-wise reports of gas sales can be monitored. CCTV cameras have been installed at all of the operator’s CNG stations and are monitored from a central control room. For the convenience of customers, online receipt printers have also been installed at the CNG stations.
Apart from this, both MGL and IGL have deployed GPS-enabled smartphones for meter reading. GPS-enabled meter readers can update data on gas consumption by using smartphones to take pictures of the meters, thereby capturing accurate readings. The meter reader feeds the data into the instrument and uploads it to the server for bill generation. Another control and monitoring solution, the geographic information system has been used by both the CGD operators to map assets spread across a wide area.
The way forward
In the future, CGD will play an important role in India’s energy basket. The government aims to increase the share of piped natural gas (PNG) and CNG in the country’s energy mix to 20 per cent by 2025. It has also declared CGD companies as public utilities and laid out a plan to increase the number of serviced cities from 81 to 326 by 2022. However, in India, the usage of analytics in the CGD sector is lower than in any other industry. Hence, in order to facilitate CGD expansion in the country, gas companies will have to adopt a holistic approach by embedding analytics in all possible business processes. Analytics in the CGD sector will help improve its operations, address issues with PNG and CNG, and improve infrastructure and asset management.