Over the past few years, meter deployments in the city gas distribution (CGD) space have gained significant traction in India. Smart metering solutions are making inroads, as utilities are shifting from using diaphragm meters, which are predominantly based on mechanical measurement techniques, to more advanced AMR meters. Several metering solutions have emerged as a result of technical improvements, significantly transforming the CGD business in the country. These improved technologies ensure precise measurement of the gas consumed, which is essential for billing, collection and proper reconciliation of accounts. The purpose of adopting smart metering solutions is to provide convenience to consumers while also enabling distribution companies to obtain readings, preferably without entering the houses of customers.
New trends and advancements
Conventional metering practices are being phased out in favour of intelligent metering systems in the natural gas segment. Earlier, meter reading was a labour-intensive process that required visits to customers’ residences. This led to objections from consumers and the inability to access meters installed inside the customer premises due to the owner not being available. As a result, bills were prepared based on estimates, which resulted in overcharging and undercharging. Furthermore, the growing volume of gas connections made the collection and billing process an even more gruelling task. CGD players have commenced an investigation regarding advanced technology solutions, smart metering devices, and innovative equipment in an attempt to address these shortcomings and streamline operations.
Automated meter reading systems
AMR is one such innovative technological solution that enables remote reading of meters. It involves the use of four major technologies – radio, telephone, power line carriers, and a hybrid of these technologies. They are installed on the existing meters, enabling gas consumption data to be communicated monthly or mostly on a daily basis directly to the operator’s central database via radio frequency. This automated collection of data ensures precise measurements, resulting in businesses incurring expenditure for the energy they actually use each month, putting an end to the estimated bills, and making gas consumption forecasting much easier.
There are two categories of AMR solutions in the domestic market: fixed solutions and walk-by/drive-by solutions. The walk-by/drive-by solutions use a meter interface unit (MIU) which is a radio transceiver that is attached to the meter. It communicates with the portable handheld unit carried by the meter reader. The 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 through a wireless network. The mobile phone transfers the collected data to a data cloud using a GPRS signal. The fixed meter solution operates in the same way as the walk-by/drive-through solution, except that the handheld unit is replaced by a fixed concentrator. It is the fixed concentrator that 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. One of the major advantages of this solution is that separate meter readers are not required. With this solution, daily meter reading and gas reconciliation is possible. As of February 2020, Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) had installed 200,000 domestic AMR meters across its network, 2,500 such units in the industrial and commercial segment, and 11,500 prepaid meters outside the NCR. AMR systems have also been implemented by Mahanagar Gas Limited’s (MGL) field agents to cater to the scattered customer base that was not covered in the mainstream meter reading mechanism. Further, around 152 industrial and commercial customers have been provided with a remote reading system. Adani Gas Limited (AGL) has deployed advanced AMR systems for recording and billing gas consumption. The data is gathered from the customer MRS (industrial/commercial) and stored in a server and is later transferred to the SAP system for billing.
Ultrasonic and thermal mass flowmeters
Innovative smart metering solutions are coming up as a result of rapid technological advancements. Ultrasonic meters, thermal mass flowmeters and positive displacement flowmeters are a few examples. Some of these such as ultrasonic and thermal meters, are being piloted in India. 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 flowmeter include the main body, the capillary, the laminar flow element, and a flow sensor chip, which is installed in the bypass channel. The flow rate is measured as a function of temperature difference using micro-thermal flow sensors. The flow sensor receives consistent heat from a precise power supply. When there is no flow, both temperature sensors measure the same temperature.
A smart prepaid gas meter is another growing metering trend in the CGD sector. Under this system, the meter comes with an inbuilt valve equipped with a prepaid processor that communicates with the server on the GPRS-GSM/LoRa network. These meters not only assess gas consumption but also connect to a local area network (LAN) or a WAN using wireless communication, allowing infrastructure maintenance, remote location monitoring and automatic billing by the CGD company. These meters also have a valve that shuts off the gas supply if the credit in a prepaid account goes below a certain limit. It compares the available credit limit to the volume consumed by each end-user. The cloud server sends an alert to the registered consumer’s mobile number whenever the credit limit falls below a specific threshold. 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 under-billing, estimated/wrong billing, reversal of bills, or house-lock problems. In 2019, IGL successfully deployed prepaid smart meters in the Rewari district of Haryana.
Utilities can track gas consumption data for thousands of meters with the help of highly secure wireless LoRa developed to establish low-power, wide area networks (LPWANs). In comparison to other networks, LoRa WAN offers the highest geographical coverage and penetration, highest range, lowest power consumption, and lowest network operation cost. MGL too is planning to take up a pilot project for the installation of 5,000 smart gas meters based on LoRa WAN in Mumbai.
Roadblocks in implementation
The deployment of smart meter solutions in the CGD segment entails a number of challenges. Factors such as product differentiation and price competitiveness pose threats to rival meter producers. This competition is expected to grow even further with technological advances and the quest of producers to provide meters at the most competitive prices. Buyers of smart meters have high bargaining power in the market since very few gas meter manufacturers possess the monetary and technical ability to provide adequate smart meter infrastructure. The sector faces significant cybersecurity risks. Smart meters comprise an internally incorporated sim card that enables wireless communication between the utility and the user. The hacking of information and disruption of gas supply from the utility pose safety concerns.
While the market provides several opportunities for new entrants, high initial investments involved in building and designing the required infrastructure and smart meters pose a hindrance to interested market players. The gas meter sector is characterised by rapid innovation growth. This poses the threat of obsolescence for device providers. The infrastructure and standard policies followed for rolling out any technology should thus ideally last for years and be adapted for deploying new metering systems.
The way forward
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. The timely billing of services, effective revenue collection, and enhanced consumer experience are a win-win for both consumers and the utility. Going forward, the advanced metering technologies for the effective monitoring of all gas distribution networks will help CGD players maximise their efficiency.