Smart metering (SM) systems will do for electricity distribution what cellphones have done for communication – they will significantly change the way we buy, sell and consume electricity, says engineering, management and technical services provider Aurecon electrical engineer Kobus van den Berg.
“SM systems can support various aspects of electricity distribution management and are, generally, recommended internationally as a way to enhance the services and financial viability of electricity utilities.
“However, it seems that utilities in Africa are very cautious,” he states.
Van den Berg notes that African utilities are confronted with shortages in generation capacity, the nonpayment of bills and more than 500-million people without access to electricity.
“Should SM systems be fully introduced into Africa, they would be an excellent tool to assist utilities in reducing energy loss, improving distribution network management, identifying network problems and effectively planning upgrades and maintenance, improv- ing revenue collection processes and reducing revenue losses, as well as involving customers in the drive to improve energy efficiency by keeping them informed,” he says.
Van den Berg notes that SM is about implementing tools to drastically change the way in which a country’s distribution system is managed.
“SM is a subcomponent of Smart Grids. The overall intention is to improve energy efficiency and network management. The introduction of renewable-energy sources and micro generation facilities complicates network control and we need a technical infrastructure to manage these networks,” explains Van den Berg.
He notes that the extensive functionality of an SM system is not always fully appreciated.
“Collecting vast amounts of data in itself is pointless; the value lies in the management of the data. The solution lies in the integration into a highly effective meter data management system (MDMS) and being able to demonstrate the benefits to the consumer,” he says.
A typical SM system at the customer’s premises includes a load switch and in-house display. These devices communicate using various methods such as power line communications and radio frequency communication, and the data is transferred to an MDMS for storage and processing.
In the metering mode, the system measures and records consumption data for billing purposes.
“It records data at 30-minute intervals, which enables a utility to determine when and where energy has been consumed,” says Van den Berg.
He notes that the meters can be switched between credit and prepayment modes remotely.
“Credit tokens bought at vending outlets, over the Internet or by using cellphones can be transferred to the meter directly or manually through the keypad on the customer interface unit – a display and keyboard installed in the customer’s residence.
“The meter also allows the implementation of complex tariffs, such as time of use (TOU) tariffs, which enable a utility to offer new energy products like cheaper power during certain times of the day or week, demand-side management incentives, device control and energy saving/efficiency linked tariffs to customers. TOU tariffs also enable the manipulation of a consumer’s consumption pattern using pricing signals to enhance energy efficiency,” continues Van den Berg.
He says the SM system is ‘smart’ because it is flexible, multifunctional, enhances the management of distribution systems and improves energy efficiency.
Advantages and Challenges
“However, it is important to understand the additional functionality of an SM system to gauge whether it meets the specific requirements of Africa,” says Van den Berg.
He notes that, in an African context, there are advantages and challenges to the implementation of SM systems.
“The SM system can provide accurate meter readings, timeous billing, preprocessed readings with validation, estimation and editing, as well as remote connect and disconnect functionalities,” he says, noting that one of the most important challenges municipalities face in South Africa is the reading of meters to produce accurate bills.
“It is not always possible for meter readers to access a customer’s premises, resulting in ‘no reads’ or estimated readings on a customer’s bill.
“However, an SM system vali- dates consumption data and any inconsistencies are corrected by the MDMS before the data reaches the billing system, which ensures higher-quality billing,” he says.
The validation, estimation and editing functions enable a utility to effectively manage consumption levels, which Van den Berg says eliminates cases of readings not being recorded because of meter failure and energy theft, resulting in meters being bypassed.
SM systems also assist with revenue protection, says Van den Berg.
“Most utilities employ officials or meter auditors to visit and inspect meter installations for safety and tampering issues. SM systems can act as a guard dog to monitor meters 24/7 and provide reading validation, estimation and editing to detect anomalies, evidence of tampering, alarm generation and energy balancing and loss, as well as initiate nonpayment or tamper disconnection,” he states.
Thus far, Van den Berg says several smaller projects involving SM systems have been under- taken in Africa.
“Botswana is a typical example. Other African projects are mostly pilot projects that evaluate the technology and its processes. In South Africa, State-owned power utility Eskom has been testing the technology.
“Some metropolitan muni- cipalities are also installing the systems. Johannesburg power utility City Power has recently awarded a tender for the installation of SM systems and it also has a pilot project in place comprising the installation of about 20 000 meters,” says Van den Berg.
He adds that Durban’s eThekwini municipality has also completed a viability study and appointed a company to carry out a pilot project. Similarly, the City of Tshwane metropolitan municipality has appointed a company to assist with a viability study of an SM system.
Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of implementing SM systems, Van den Berg points out.
“Large installations can be found in Europe, China, Ireland, Brazil, India, the Middle East, the US and Nordic countries, with a host of countries planning and executing installation projects.
“The UK, for example, has completed exhaustive research projects to establish the require- ments for converting all gas and electricity meters into SM systems. Australia and New Zealand are also making good progress on the investigations and roll-out of the systems,” he says.
Van den Berg says African countries will have to carry out their own extensive research because social, environmental and political conditions, communication infrastructure, network conditions and the customer base are vastly different from many American, European and Chinese requirements.
“SM projects will require significant capital investment, which will have to be recovered over 10 to 15 years. Should the information that is collected by the system be used effectively, this investment will provide the utilities with the tools to improve energy and network management significantly.
“It is important to note that SM is not a miracle metering system that will solve all revenue and unit losses on its own. It will, however, provide utilities with management information to enable timeous and efficient decision-making and reaction to problems in the field immediately,” he states.
Van den Berg says it is also important that utilities do not underestimate customer involvement and possible negative reaction to the new technology.
“It is essential to involve customers from the start of a project and educate them to use the information provided by the SM system to improve their energy efficiency and reduce their electricity costs,” he says.