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Smart Meters: are they here for good?

Smart Technology helps Pakistan’s energy managers plug power pilferages and manage line loads more effectively.

By Imran Adnan

Its summer 2020. A Pakistani newspaper headline reads “FBR finally gets real-time access to power companies billing data. Business leaders announce country wide strike.” Mrs. Khan, 65, asks her grandson innocently why businessmen are agitating against real-time data access to Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). Her grandson, Sirkhel Ezad, sitting on the other side of the dining table, is an engineer and marketer who recently completed his MBA and is working in a software company dealing in embedded solutions.

Sirkhel tells his grandmother, “Pakistani nation does not believe in country’s taxation system. Generally people are not willing to pay their due taxes and the tax-to-GDP ratio in Pakistan is low in regional comparison. It’s all because of the non-availability of reliable data about different sectors of the economy. But the roll out of mobile communication and 3G technology has enabled Pakistan to gather information from school enrollment to banking transaction, from energy generation to power consumption in the blink of an eye. Mobile telecommunication and technology innovation has enabled energy managers to know about power consumption partners of each and every consumer in the country. Businessmen fear if tax authorities get access to their energy consumption data it would not be difficult for them to assess their actual income and tax accordingly.” One day it is going to happen in Pakistan and other developing countries where a major portion of the economy is undocumented.

Power utility companies in USA, UK, Australia, Europe, Switzerland and other parts of the world are switching to smart metering technologies despite public resistance and reservations and Pakistan is no exception. Energy managers, in collaboration with USAID and other donor agencies in Pakistan, are evaluating different smart or advanced metering solutions to find best solutions for the country.

Read more: Demystifying Pakistan’s energy crisis

What is a smart meter?

In previous century, the word smart was generally used for intelligent, elegant or neatly dressed persons, but in 21st century technology gets smarter and people associate this word with intelligent devices or gadgets, like smart phones, smart TVs, etc. Similarly, the term “Smart Meter” refers to the next generation of intelligent utility meters used to measure electricity and gas consumption. It is an electronic device that records consumption of electricity or gas in given intervals and communicates that information to utility company for monitoring and billing. Smart Meter is capable of doing two-way communication between the meter and the central system that means a utility company can remotely control the flow of electricity or gas running through the meter.

Right now four types of electricity meters are being used in Pakistan.

  • Mechanical or analog meters.
  • Static meters, commonly known as digital meters.
  • Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) meters.
  • Smart or advanced meters.

Let’s take the mechanical meters first. Pakistan is among a few developing countries in the world where utility companies are still using obsolete mechanical electric meters. This early generation power meters have dozens of gears and mechanical parts that lose efficiency and accuracy over a period of time and cause significant loss to power utility companies. But cash strapped power companies in the developing world have limited resources to upgrade these decades’ old power meters with modern ones. Some estimates suggest that nearly half of power meters in Pakistan are still mechanical or analog.

The second most common type of power meters in Pakistan are the digital ones, technically called static meters. These electronic meters are highly accurate and have various security features, like reverse current and earth load tampering protection, etc. These days power utility companies generally install this type of meters for new electricity connections and replacement.

AMR meters are new in Pakistan. These semi-smart meters are capable of one-way communication that means these electronic meters can transmit meter reading data, through different communication mediums, like Radio Frequency (RF), Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM) / General Packet Radio Services (GPRS), etc., to backend data centers of utility companies. AMR meters eliminate the need of manual meter reading and effectively address inaccurate meter reading complaints.

Read more: Can Pakistan solve its energy crisis?

The Smart Meter Hardware

This is an amazing technology that is helping power utility companies and consumers around the world to promote efficient energy use. Smart meter, some people call them Advanced Meter, is an electronic metering device that offers two-way communication, which means a meter can automatically send reading, quality of power, voltage and current stats to the utility company. In addition, contrary to AMR technology, utility company can send commands to meter to cut off the supply, warn user if it exceeds certain consumption threshold and allows or disallows electricity usage in any specific hours, etc. Smart metering is combination of hardware, including smart meters, modems, routers, servers; communication technologies, like RF, GSM / GPRS, Power Line Communication (PLC); and software components that are like databases and applications. In energy sector people call this whole solution an Automatic Metering Infrastructure (AMI).

A senior official of USAID power project who doesn’t want to be named believes that AMR and AMI metering technologies can help energy managers in Pakistan to do better planning and management of power network. He pointed out that with the technical and financial cooperation of USAID, Pakistan had already installed AMR meters at all power generation, transmission and distribution points. This is an indigenous smart metering solution developed by USAID for Pakistan. Over nine thousand AMR meters have already been installed at all grid sub-stations in the country, which are transmitting real-time power generation and consumption stats to National Power Control Center (NPCC) and Power Distribution Centers (PDCs) set up at all distribution companies.

He disclosed that since the inception of power sector in Pakistan, energy managers were running power transmission and distribution affairs merely on guess work. In early years, things remained under control due to limited number of consumers and demand. But with the passage of time energy demand swelled and things started getting out of hand. In recent years, power consumers face unprecedented unscheduled load shedding because energy managers were unable to monitor what was happening in power lines. They knew how much power was available, but they were unaware about the consumption patterns at distribution stage. Power sector had no capability to monitor how much energy was being drawn by different power distribution companies. Some distribution companies were drawing power beyond their quota limits, while others were running at lower loads.

Now after the introduction of AMR metering technology each and every stat from power generation to consumption is being recorded automatically. Energy managers are equipped to monitor generation, demand and load in real time. Industry and economic experts argue that though power outages had their economic impact on the overall economy but the worst hit sectors were the industrial units by this unscheduled load shedding. However, after the introduction of modern metering technologies, this problem was effectively solved. An independent study reveals that installation of AMR meters and availability of reliable power stats has ensured better management of national grid. This technology has helped power companies to reduce unscheduled power outages by over 94 percent. The economic benefit of this new technology is around $180 million savings in terms of loss reduction. In addition, it helped power utility companies to plug power pilferages and earn an additional revenue of $60 million per annum.

On Consumer Front

Pakistan has around 23 million power consumers, 47 percent of which are domestic, 30 percent industrial, 11.4 percent agriculture and 7 percent are commercial consumers. The country can hardly replace 50 percent of total mechanical energy meter with more accurate digital/static meters due to financial constraints. Similar is the situation with other developed and developing countries. Till today no country can introduce modern smart metering technology across the board. Energy managers’ start upgrading their metering infrastructure from high end consumers and loss prone areas and Pakistan is no exception.

So far USAID has installed over 80 thousand AMR or Smart meters in the country. USAID official shared some interesting anecdotes with me. He disclosed that in Lahore Electricity Supply Company (LESCO), Niaz Baig was among one of the most loss prone sub divisions. LESCO asked USAID staff to help utility company in averting these losses. This sub division had total 17 feeders of which 12 were main load generators. USAID replaced electricity meters on these 12 feeders with modern static meters, which reduced distribution loss by over 2 percent.

Similarly, Multan Electricity Power Company (MEPCO) has over 5 million power consumers of which one 20 thousand consumers have over 20KW load only. These 20 percent contribute nearly 50 percent of the revenue. Multan Circle, a smaller distribution area of MEPCO, has 1.2 million consumers of which 13 thousand are tube well consumers having over 20KW load. Similar is the situation with Vehari. USAID has started installing GSM based smart meters, with a provision to remotely cut off the supply in specific hours, to all tube well users. This intervention has already proved successful as consumers are stratified with their meter reading and utility company can better control the consumption. So far this project is underway and will be completed by August 2015.

USAID had similar intervention with Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO) and 84 thousand static meters and 42 thousand RF based AMR meters, which helped the utility company to increase its revenue by nearly 50 percent. USAID is also working with power utility companies in Hyderabad and Faisalabad and producing similar results. By the end of this project USAID would have installed around 1.8 million static, AMR or smart meters in the country.

It’s all happening in Pakistan, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. In Qasimabad, (Hyderabd Sindh), power utility company had to face great resistance when their technician started replacing the old meters. Official numbers show that every year 52 million units were lost in distribution in this area alone. Some 1,500, ‘kundas’ or illegal connections were found. Locals broke smart meters and removed SIM cards. In short, people showed great resistance against this new metering technology. Similar reactions were observed in some other parts of country too.

However, now that the technology is there USAID has trained Pakistani citizens who will run this new automatic metering infrastructure. Once the project will be completed it will be transferred to NPCC, DISCOs and Power Information Technology Company (PITC).

Read more: A Start of Something Big

On Industrial Landscape

Understanding the needs of tomorrow’s power sector Pakistani companies have also started localization of these modern smart meters. Microtech Industries Limited (MTL) has been working with the USAID on this project and has developed a complete solution from manufacturing of AMR or smart meter to backend software controls. MTL Assistant Manager Business Development Ali Mohsin told me that MTL and some other companies are manufacturing these modern electric meters locally. Right now local industry is working on two technologies RF and GSM/GPRS.

Pak Elektron Limited (PEL) Project Manager AMR / AMI System Farrukh Mehmood said these smart meters work on the principle of static meter but with two additional modules for communication and control. He disclosed that PEL being one of the biggest manufacturers of power products and electrical equipment has successfully set up an assembly line for these modern meters. He underscored that local industry has capability to meet the new meters demand of Pakistan’s power sector.

What is best for Pakistan?

World over power utility companies rely on different communication technologies to gather data from smart meters, like RF, GSM/ GPRS, PLC, Mesh Networks, etc. But in Pakistan currently all players are focused on RF and GSM/GPRS technologies for obvious reasons. However, Asian Development Bank (ADB) is making a project for which PLC technology is being proposed, which is capable of transmitting data on power lines. However, LESCO Project Manager Advance Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and Manager Procurement Akhtar Ali Chaudhry and other industry experts believe that Pakistan has one of the best cellular networks in the world. GSM/GPRS technology could be best for the country though it is slightly expensive than PLC. They argue that Pakistan’s power network has very high noise rates. Connections on power lines are not up to the mark. Attenuation on power lines is very high. In present circumstance it would be nearly impossible to roll out smart metering project on PLC technology.

Automation – A threat or an opportunity?

Like general public, field staff especially meter readers and line staff in power utility companies feel threatened by this automation. They argue if meters started sending their reading data to billing centers with greater accuracy and companies get power to remotely connect or disconnect power supply their jobs will become redundant. Their authority, their importance in society will be ruined. At some instances these people also showed resistance in installing AMR and smart meters. Officials pointed out that initially USAID took nearly six months in installing a few thousand meters because utility company employees were reluctant. But once the system started functioning these people were very happy, as their jobs became easier. He revealed almost all RF meters installed in Pakistan transmit data through RF medium to nearby handheld RF reader. In certain areas meter readers have been provided Handheld Units (HHUs) to record meter reading in their areas. They are happy because the need to write with pen or pencil has been eliminated. Earlier they had to work for long hours in the field, but now they can easily record meter reading data from a much larger area in a limited time and transfer it to computers at datacenter. The chances of inaccurate meter reading are almost zero.

Read more: Pakistan’s Energy Crisis – The Real Story

The downside

Though smart metering is one of the most significant innovations of 21st century, but still people have reservations against this technology. In several countries people staged demonstrations against installation of smart meters. Some people claim that these smart meters produce very high radiation while sending or receiving data, which has very bad effects on their health. Though no country in the world has all smart meters in the country but in several countries on court’s order utility companies had to remove smart meter on consumer complaints. Some companies have smart meter opt-out programs to avoid litigation. In 2013, an award winning filmmaker Josh Del Sol produced a documentary film, ‘Take Back Your Power’, in which smart meters were badly criticized.

However, in Pakistan, utility companies and industry experts claim that these meters are safe and do not effect public health. They argue that in Pakistan almost everybody carries a cell phone in his pocket or hand, if these cell phone do not harm humans then these meters would never do. Because these meters are installed on the outer parameters of the living premises.

Another reservation against smart metering technology is that in the west people consider these smart meters as spying devices. They argue that their privacy is being compromised with these meters because utility companies can constantly monitor energy consumption patterns of each and every consumer. This data can help them to identify how many people are at home, which equipment they are using, etc. Different researches indicate more advance smart metering networks could also identify the brand and model of the smart equipment running on their networks. Later this data can be used for marketing and other purposes. After the WikiLeaks revelation and news exposé of US National Security Agency (NSA) activities, reservation of US nationals and other western countries seem justified to some extent. However, in Pakistan, these reservations currently do not matter, but one day, once a complete system is in place different pressure groups, including worker unions and trade bodies, might raise a voice against this new technology.

Imran Adnan is a writer, graphic designer and a techaholic.

Authors
  • Ankit

    5 kw would give average of 20 to 25 units per day average 22 units for
    365 days in punjab region where as about 25 to 27 in sind and balochistan.
    Bidirectional meters are they are called for net metering.The technology is
    already becoming popular in India and can follow policy matters from here it is
    a win win scheme………

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