SA lags in smart meter roll-out PDF Print E-mail
Municipalities implement automated metering, while advanced systems bringing greater visibility lag behind.


Thinking around energy has undergone major upheaval in recent weeks, notes Charl Theron, portfolio manager at Zirode Management Services, as the availability and affordability of electricity comes into serious question.


“Eskom tariff increases are forcing companies to pay more attention to their operational expenditure, whereas in the past we were spoilt with cheap electricity, which cultivated bad habits.

“Only now are people considering energy management systems, after it`s hurt their pocket.” He adds that, locally, improving energy efficiency is still very much profit-driven. “In SA, it`s all bottom line – there is no incentive to spend money on a `green` initiative for a pat on the back.”

Theron argues that these initiatives have to save companies money and, in turn, help the economy through better distribution and fewer power cuts.

In response to the electricity crisis developing recently, Eskom and government have introduced several demand-side management (DSM) initiatives, including load limiting and time-of-use tariffs.

As part of this drive, a specification document, called NRS049, was developed to outline the requirements for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to ensure uniform systems will be installed.

It describes a smart meter as one capable of providing real-time energy consumption data to both the distributor and consumer, relaying commands to devices remotely, supporting time-of-use tariffs, and storing billing and tampering information.

Andy Robb, CTO at Duxbury Networking, says there`s huge potential for smart meters, both in optimising energy consumption and as a catalyst for change in consumers` energy awareness and use. “Rather than just increasing supply, which isn`t really sustainable, we have to better manage what we do have.”

Digital dinosaurs

While more intelligent and efficient energy management systems are available, they have not seen widespread uptake locally. “All the technology we use today, from cellphones to PCs, is so advanced, yet our grid is 30 years old,” notes Theron.

“If utility service providers like municipalities adopt a more efficient point of view, they`ll have the power to do away with old inaccurate meters. Municipalities are still the main suppliers of utility services and own in almost all the cases the responsibility and assets of the metering infrastructure. If they simply stop purchasing old meters, within a few years we will see a significant change.”

Theron says once municipalities understand that they can streamline their entire operation, and the value proposition behind smart metering, there may be some movement. “Smart metering has wonderful transparency, which is not a word that municipalities are fond of,” he adds.

Robb says there are two main reasons why uptake has been slow. “The first is an actual lack of understanding of the technology and its benefits at an operational level, as grid management is often not open to new technology.”

Secondly, he adds, for smart metering infrastructure to be truly effective, it requires bi-directional, real-time information to be sent to both suppliers and end-users. “A house with a smart meter will have to have always-on broadband connection, which is a challenge given SA`s broadband penetration,” notes Robb.

He explains that for smart metering to work, municipalities will have to deploy and manage their own broadband networks. Robb adds that wireless broadband could be a valuable option, as it is freely available, and quickly and easily deployed. “There will be a cost involved, but the benefits will outweigh these in the end.”

According to Theron, after speaking with various municipalities, it emerged some couldn`t account for as much as 70% of their water supply, which he says is due to a simple lack in service delivery.

Theron explains that implementing intelligent systems, which can flag any leakages and pinpoint them to a 200m radius, depending on the proximity of the meters, could help bring greater visibility and control over water wastages, and prevent costly repairs.

It boils down to a “prevention is better than cure” approach, he says. “One has to remember the implications of water leakages: money has to be spent to purify water that is spilled out into the gutter, and water erodes, leading to potholes.

“If the municipality would spend money on the infrastructure they would recover that initial investment faster through their savings and have to spend less on crisis management.”

Johannesburg City Power MD Silas Zimu says it started the installation of automated meters around three years ago, with the intention to have the whole city on automated meters.

“Large power users in industry are already on automated users, with more than 30 000 installed in Horizon View, Horizon Park, Ontdekkers, Florida, Aspen Hills, Fleurhof, and Alexandra, to mention a few,” he adds.

Smart meters go a step beyond simple automatic meter reading, however, by enabling real-time energy consumption readings and direct communication with the user.

According to Zimu, electricity losses for City Power stand at about 13%, of which 9% is technical, such as transformer losses, and 4% non-technical, including electricity theft. “Comparatively speaking, this is one of the best in the world,” he says, citing a 2009 international survey.

Remote control

Robb notes that smart metering infrastructure could bring real electricity savings at distribution points in the smart grid, with real-time control features capable of re-directing flows and exchanging power from one point to another. According to NRS049, remote control access is a critical benefit, as it reduces the manpower needed to monitor equipment.

Theron adds that smart metering solutions can be designed so no training is needed on behalf of the user, resulting in quick adoption of the technology.

“How long did it take people to get use to Internet banking? Once they were assured of the security everyone jumped on. And this is the brilliance of digital utility management. People question the accuracy of their utility bills; now it`s available to them in real-time,” he states.

With some systems, notes Theron, electricity and water information can be displayed on a client`s cellphone, which they can link to their bank account to pay bills as they do with airtime. “This is all technology people are already using; we are just applying it to utilities.”

He adds that the prepaid model is effective in SA, as it simplifies the process around planning and managing electricity usage and collection of related payments. “It suits the municipalities in that they don`t have to deal with arrear accounts, which is one of their greatest challenges.”

According to Theron, only 40% of the population has and actively uses bank accounts, so for many people saving money somewhere to pay an unexpected utility bill at the end of the month is unrealistic. With prepaid solutions, clients know what they get and what they pay for, he explains.

Industry hurdles

Bringing in smart meters, however, is not without its challenges. Theron says most municipalities are so budget-strapped that it probably won`t start there. “We should start by not installing old meters in greenfield developments, as technology only gets cheaper, and thus the price difference is not significant taking into account the administrational nightmare of analogue meters.”

He adds that replacing old meters can be done by managing agents, as they greatly lower their operating expenditure, offsetting the costs of the meters, with paybacks of as little as five months.

Zimu says difficulties in implementing effective energy management include affordability and limited customer understanding of DSM. “Long-term plans are to establish an IT infrastructure that can consolidate information from different points and issue a report rather than getting this from various points,” he adds.

Other challenges include things like standardisation, with even the international market struggling to find a standard. ”It will take a bit of time for the industry to find its feet. However, this is also specific to the environment and the application, and this will have to be taken into account,” notes Theron.

NRS049 advises against propriety systems for pre-payment metering to ensure interchangeability between suppliers in a certain area. “Some of the major manufacturers have realised there is a dire need for standardisation in this field and there are various initiatives taking place to standardise on communication protocols...” states the document.

Robb says technologies like wireless broadband may be the most viable option for bringing in smart meters. “Municipalities could partner with wireless service providers to build networks, which may even bring profit gains if they supply Internet access over the same networks.

“So in one guise or another, I see smart meters being implemented in the country in the next year or two.”

Related stories:
Smart tech brings energy insights
Power hike shocks business

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