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An approach to Utility Metering in India


A. Raja Rao, Director, Anusha Associates

Electricity System Restructuring in India has been going on for over a decade now. Progress has been slow and the initial primary objective of attracting private capital into the electricity supply industry has had only minor success. Other objectives such as breaking down the vertically integrated structure of the industry, corporatization, privatization, formation of independent regulatory bodies etc have however made better progress. Utilities continue to remain financially weak and are therefore not attracting private capital. A comprehensive legislation at the central level, The Electricity Act 2003, is now over a year old and has yet to make itself felt. The central and state governments are finding that the electricity supply industry is likely to be the major drag in the growth of the country’s economy and are finding themselves increasingly involved in finding ways of solving the problems facing the industry.

‘Automatic Meter Reading’ if looked at in a different light could help substantially and create confidence in the industry. The approach may be applicable to countries similarly placed like India.

The issues to be considered include:

  1. Losses in the transmission and distribution systems have been estimated to be up to 50% and the utilities do not seem to be able to get a proper and reliable figure, in the absence of which meaningful steps cannot be taken. There is a dire need to get a handle on the extent and causes of these losses.
  2. Agricultural consumers in some states consume up to 40% of all electricity. This electricity has to be supplied at low prices, much below cost. Who will bear the difference –is it the state government, the utility, other categories of consumer (cross subsidy) – the debate goes on.
  3. The penetration of AMR even in the US market is estimated at less than 20%. In India there are no significant penetrations and data is not available.
  4. Utility managers are coming to realize that they could do with some innovative tariff approaches, but find that the metering systems in place does not permit them to do so.
  5. Lack of adequate investment during the last few years has created increasing shortages of peaking capacity as well as energy. Interruptions in supply are increasing all over the country. No one is really quantifying the interruptions. There needs to be an outage information system in place.
  6. There is tremendous pressure to utilize the existing infrastructure to the limits both in terms of peak load and also energy.
  7. There are some categories of customer who do not want to be metered and are able to use their political clout to avoid getting metered. Notable in this category are the agricultural and rural consumers. Some of these ‘poor’ consumers get supply on a flat tariff basis without a meter and are supposed to use a single light bulb, but misuse the facility.
  8. The size of the Indian Electricity supply industry is large enough to warrant consideration of a communication system exclusively for use in metering alone. A recent study by EPRI of USA considers a massive communication system overlaying the Power System solely for the purpose of ‘intelligently’ controlling and monitoring the power grid. A communication system such as the one for metering alone could very well be integrated into such a system. In particular with the rapid advance of wireless communications it would seem that such a concept is very much feasible.
  9. Above all the cost of metering should be brought down drastically and it should be possible to use metering even for small consumers who consume even only 100 units in a year.
  10. It should be possible to install such a metering system ‘outside’ the consumer’s premises and the consumer need not know that he is being metered. He also need not necessarily have access to his meter reading on a continuous basis as is now possible with a meter on his premises which also gives a reading. This concept parallels the ‘telecom’ concept where the consumer trusts the service provider to give him a proper bill for his usage.

Based on the foregoing it would seem that a metering system on the following lines would ‘fit’ well.

  1. The meter should be a sealed type unit which could be ‘hung’ from the power line outside a consumer’s premises.
  2. It should have communication facility (wireless?), using which it communicates its readings once in half an hour to a concentrator, which is located near or on the distribution transformer, which is feeding that consumer. All consumers connected to that distribution transformer would have a similar facility. Each distribution transformer would act as a ‘cell’ and there would be as many cells as there are distribution transformers. (Additionally other parameters such as voltage values could also be transmitted as and when it is necessary to do so for ‘outage’ purposes.)
  3. The concentrator at the distribution transformer would communicate with the utility office using an optimal communication system and the meter readings from all the consumer meters would be used by the utility to generate all necessary information based on ‘the half hour kwh’ and other readings. Powerful software would be required at the utility for this purpose and the following analysis/information could easily be generated.
    • Billing information.
    • Loading data on the distribution transformer.
    • ‘Loss’ in the network supplied by the distribution transformer. This could be aggregated over the whole of the utility’s network.
    • Outage information including time of outage, location of outage, duration of outage and all its derivatives.
    • Analysis of consumer usage to generate ideas for tariffs.
    • Voltage values at the consumer premises giving an idea of the design of the distribution network.
    • If considered essential a display unit could also be fitted in the consumer’s premises, which displays his meter reading.
  4. It would seem from the foregoing that a one-way communication from the meter to the utility would suffice. A two-way communication facility would of course give additional benefits.
  5. The key to the whole concept is how the cost can be kept low. A possible target figure would seem to be an average of $ 25 for a typical domestic or rural consumer connection. Developments in wireless technologies such as RFID give hope that such a target would be achievable. The sooner the better.

How big is the market?
The total number of consumers in India exceed 120 million of which domestic consumers would be in excess of 90 million, Agricultural consumers would be in excess of 14 million. Total number of distribution transformers about 1.9 million.

Readers Comments

Date Comment
F.Allen Morgan
I would like to address your Item 3 points.

A: Billing infomration - Yes, obviously if your going to bill actual usage to the end user, a metering point is required. B: Loading info on the transformer might be easier and more econmically served with a meter at the transformer - or via sampeling techiques C: Knowing loading on the transformer - loss could be calculated using standard curves, or again via sampeling techniques D: Smart meters can provide outage info. However, other dedicated outage detection devices work well also. E: Analysis of consumer usage. Sampeling techniques are widely used to do this. In fact most rate cases in the US are based on these techniques, which at issue are hundreds of millions of $ in rates. F: Like B, voltage measurement at the end point may not be needed in 99% of cases. You can ascertain most of your voltages from centralized distribution points which are much easier to attain than at the end point and model the end point voltage. G: In the US where the meter is located (typically) in a readily available location at the customer premise, the meter display has worked well for many years.

Finally, not knowing the full utility infrastructure of India, I ask: Why not a telephone based system - one that shares the customers telephone line?

A. Raja Rao
I agree with Mr Allen Morgan that there are alternate ways of doing things. But, I wanted to highlight that if an economical way could be found to treat the distribution transformer as a 'cell' then so many issues could be resolved in one go. In respect of 'telephone based system' the telephone penetration in India is small in comparison to the number of households which have electricity. I would again like to ask the question - Why is it necessary for a 'electricity' consumer to be able to see his meter reading at all times when a similar necessity is not manifest in respect of the telecom usage of a consumer whether he is in the USA or in India.

P M Dekker
Raja, Have you considered using the transmission wires themselves as the communication pathway for your metering? simply add your communication system using higher frequency transmission. This is currently being tested in Ohio, where access to cable TV systems is limited. Sincerely, P M Dekker

Copyright 2005 CyberTech, Inc.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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