Metering plays a vital role in the city gas distribution (CGD) industry, as an accurate measure of gas supplied and consumed is essential for achieving operational efficiency. Meters are used to measure the volume of gas consumed by domestic, industrial and commercial consumers. They are also installed at compressed natural gas stations. However, the existing metering technologies and equipment are susceptible to human errors, and wear and tear. Moreover, incorrect meter readings lead to leakages, creating a gap between the gas supplied and consumed.
Over the years, with technological advancements, various metering solutions have emerged and significantly changed the way the CGD business is done in the country. Today, these upgraded techniques ensure the accurate measurement of gas consumed, which is necessary for billing/revenue collection and for the proper reconciliation of accounts. A number of CGD players have adopted smart metering solutions to improve their competence and serve customers better.
The natural gas industry is gradually moving from traditional metering to intelligent metering solutions. Previously, meter reading used to be a manual operation, which involved visiting customers’ premises. This led to objections from consumers and inability to access meters installed inside customer premises due to the owner not being available. Thus, bills were generated based on estimates, resulting in over/ undercharging. In addition, the increasing number of gas connections made the exercise of collection and billing even more time-consuming. In a bid to overcome these challenges and streamline operations, CGD operators started testing advanced technology solutions, smart metering devices and innovative equipment.
Automated meter reading (AMR) devices are an example of such innovative technology solutions. These devices offer remote readings of meters. They are retrofitted on existing meters, allowing gas consumption data to be transmitted to the operator’s central database using radio frequency. This automatic collection of data ensures accurate measurements, which are then used for billing purposes, thus eliminating the need for manual readings.
In the domestic segment, there are two types of AMR solutions – fixed solutions and walk-by/drive-by solutions. In a fixed AMR solution, meter interface units are attached to gas meters to capture meter readings and transmit them to a data concentrator. The concentrator then relays the data to a server wirelessly over GPRS/4G/ GSM/low-power WAN technology. Data from the server can then be integrated with SAP for billing purposes. In walk-by/drive-by solutions, representatives of the gas distribution company are equipped with handheld units along with smartphones that have a particular application installed on them. The meter reader walks/drives through a guided route and the meter data gets collected though a wireless network. The collected data can then be sent to a central control room using a smartphone via a secured internet connection.
For the industrial and commercial segments, the AMR solution comes with a modem. The meter interface units are attached to gas meters or flow computers to capture readings and transmit them through GSM/GPRS/4G/LoRa to the main server on a daily basis.
Another emerging metering trend in the CGD sector is smart prepaid gas meters. These meters not only measure gas consumption, but also use wireless communication to connect to a local area network or a WAN, which enables infrastructure maintenance, remote location monitoring and automatic billing by the CGD company. These meters also come with a valve to stop the gas flow when the credit in a corresponding prepaid account falls below a certain level. These meters connect to a cloud server every day at a scheduled time. The cloud server gathers the required information from connected meters. It checks the available credit limit against the consumed volume for each end consumer. If the credit limit is below a certain level, the cloud server sends an alert to the registered consumer’s mobile number. These meters are more suitable for non-resident Indians, who do not use their gas connections for more than a few months in a year and, therefore, do not wish to pay recurring bills.
With rapid upgradation in technologies, innovative solutions are emerging in the smart metering space. These include ultrasonic meters, thermal mass flow meters and positive displacement flow meters. Some of these, such as ultrasonic meters and thermal meters, are being tried and tested in India on a pilot basis.
Ultrasonic meters are non-invasive, as they have two transducers that can be clamped on to a pipeline to measure the velocity of flow without coming in contact with the fluid, using ultrasonic waves. The basic elements of a thermal mass flow meter include the main body, the capillary, the laminar flow element and a flow sensor chip, which is installed in the bypass channel. The micro-thermal flow sensors measure the flow rate as a function of temperature difference. A precision power supply delivers constant heat to the flow sensor. When there is no flow, both temperature sensors measure the same temperature. However, if flow is present, the measured temperature is the difference between the two sensors, and is proportional to the mass flow rate.
Various communication technologies are also being deployed in smart gas metering practices, such as the aforementioned walk-by system, data concentrators, GSM- and GPRS-based communication, and narrowband internet of things.
A series of initiatives
Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) became the first CGD company to introduce smart metering technology in the country by installing prepaid smart gas meters in the Rewari district of Haryana in 2019. These smart meters, provided by Genesis Gas Solutions in partnership with Tata Communications’ LoRaWAN IoT network, enabled IGL’s customers to monitor their gas use more accurately, in real time, against available credit.
In order to achieve better results and reach a wider range of customers through calls and SMSs, spot billing was implemented by Mahanagar Gas Limited’s (MGL) field agents. This measure catered to a scattered customer base that was not covered under the mainstream meter reading mechanism. Further, several industrial and commercial customers have been provided with remote reading systems. Meanwhile, MGL is planning to replace diaphragm meters installed at commercial customer sites with smart meters to remotely obtain meter readings.
Pain points and the way forward
Smart gas metering is different from smart electricity metering because of which a number of challenges remain in the sector. While electricity meters can be easily powered through the main line and can rely on the existing electric network, smart gas meters need to rely on battery-powered and wireless infrastructure as they are prone to gas-related accidents. Moreover, there are issues pertaining to shortage of skilled manpower, limited availability of domestic vendors for smart meters, and limited scale of adoption.
Innovations in metering and billing solutions offer operators the opportunity to improve their operational efficiencies. However, the aforementioned challenges undermine the effectiveness of these technologies. Hence, there is a need to address these challenges and ensure that these technological solutions are deployed for a large consumer base. The widespread use of smart meters is of critical importance, as timely billing of services, effective revenue collection and enhanced consumer experience are beneficial to both consumers and utilities. Besides, smart metering is a necessity for any traditional utility that is aiming to transform into a smart utility in the current dynamic environment, where adopting innovative ways of conducting business is vital to maintain long-term competence.