The benefits and challenges of using smart energy meters

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Smart meters come with exciting new opportunities for energy and utility companies as well as for consumers. From an industry perspective, they can integrate new technologies and innovations into the grid. For users, these meters can reduce costs, provide transparency and flexible pricing. Smart meters can also improve energy efficiency, grid reliability and outage management.

By Baishakhi Dutta

Smart meters are digital meters that can replace the old analogue meters at homes to record electricity usage. Digital meters can transmit energy consumption information back to the utility more frequently than analogue meters, which require meter readers to transmit information.

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Energy usage is recorded every hour or so in a home. Smart meters enable home users to monitor their consumption more accurately and make smarter energy choices. Depending on the feature set, the meter can also notify the utility to power down or to remotely switch power services. The first step in implementing a smart grid is to implement an advanced metering infrastructure (AMI).

What is an AMI?
AMI is a general term that describes the entire power infrastructure—from smart meters and two-way communication networks to the control centre equipment and all the applications that collect and transmit energy usage information in near real-time. The AMI can communicate with customers and is the backbone of the smart grid. The goals of an AMI can be remote meter reading for error-free data, network problem identification, load analysis, energy auditing, and partial load reduction instead of load shedding.

The building blocks of an AMI
This infrastructure is made up of a variety of hardware and software components, all of which play a role in measuring energy consumption and transmitting information about energy, water and gas usage to utilities and customers. The technical components of an AMI include the following.

  • Smart meters – These are advanced instruments that collect information about energy, water and gas usage at various intervals, transmit data to utilities via a fixed communication network, and receive pricing signals from utilities that are transmitted to consumers.
  • Communication networks – These are advanced networks that support two-way communication—from smart meters to utility companies and vice versa. Networks such as Broadband on PowerLine (BPL), power line communication, fibre optic communication, fixed radio or public networks (e.g., landline, cellular and paging) are used for this purpose.
  • Meter data acquisition system – This comprises control centre hardware and software applications on the DCU (Data Concentrator Unit), which are used for fetching data from the meter over the communication network and sending it to the meter data management system.
  • Meter data management system (MDMS) – This is the host system that receives, stores and analyses metering information.

Benefits galore
The benefits of an AMI are multifold and can be generally categorised as:

  • Operational benefits – An AMI benefits the entire grid by improving the accuracy of meter reading, energy theft detection and power outage response, without the need for onsite meter reading.
  • Financial benefits – An AMI ensures financial benefits to utilities like electricity, water and gas companies by reducing equipment and maintenance costs, restoring electricity services faster and reducing billing processes during power outages.
  • Customer benefits – An AMI benefits power users by detecting instrument failures early, enabling faster service, and increasing billing accuracy and flexibility. In addition, an AMI allows time based rate options that help customers save money and manage their energy consumption.
  • Security benefits—AMI technology can enhance the monitoring of system resources, thereby reducing the potential threat of cyber terrorist attacks on the grid.

Challenges of deploying an AMI
Despite its advantages, there are three major challenges when deploying AMIs, as listed below.

  • High capital costs: The full deployment of an AMI includes the expenses of all hardware and software components, including instrumentation, network infrastructure and network management software, as well as the costs associated with the installation and maintenance.
  • Integration: An AMI is a complex technical system that must be integrated with utility information systems, including customer information systems (CIS), geographic information systems (GIS), outage management systems (OMS), work management systems (WMS), mobile workforce management (MWM), SCADA/DMS, distribution automation systems (DAS), etc.
  • Standardisation: There is a need to define interoperability standards that set uniform requirements for AMI technology, its deployment and general operations. These are key to successfully connecting and maintaining an AMI based grid system.

AMI in the Indian context
Modernising India’s grid system by investing in AMI is expected to reduce the pressure on the grid caused by the increased demand for electricity. The AMI can improve the three main functions of the Indian grid system.

  • System reliability: AMI technology can minimise power outages by enabling power distributors to identify and automatically respond to fluctuating power demand to improve distribution and overall reliability.
  • Energy costs: Increased reliability and functionality, as well as reduced power outages and simpler billing operations can significantly reduce the costs associated with providing and maintaining the grid, thereby reducing electricity bills.
  • Electricity theft: Power theft is a very common problem in India. AMI systems that track energy usage can monitor power in real-time, increasing system transparency.

India’s push for smart meters
Smart metering is one of the measures proposed by the Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana (UDAY) to improve the financial health of distribution companies, as it will reduce the aggregated transmission and commercial (AT&C) losses from approximately 22 per cent to 15 per cent.

In a country like India, power theft is a huge challenge. Theft through tampering with meters and distribution lines has plagued the industry for years. It is estimated that India loses about US$ 16.2 billion annually due to power theft but the smart grid will help solve this problem. By using an Internet of Things (IoT) based metering infrastructure with smart meters and smart grids, utilities can ensure far more reliable power generation and distribution in India. Pilots for smart meter deployment are being conducted in various cities like Kolkata, Delhi, UP, Chandigarh, Tripura and Puducherry, among others.

The government is committed to providing electricity to all Indians. By using smart grids, it can also make power more affordable.

The intelligent automated metering system eliminates the need for manual meter reading, which reduces data entry errors and costs. These meters, connected through a network-based monitoring system, can help reduce utility losses, increase revenue, and become an important tool for power sector reform.

Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) is helping to implement the Smart Meter National Programme (SMNP). As announced in 2017, the SMNP aims to replace India’s 250 million traditional electricity meters with smart meters. These meters will be sourced by EESL. The programme has been first launched in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where AT&C losses were 28.42 per cent and 34.36 per cent, respectively. EESL plans to deploy 5 million smart meters across the two states. The programme will help reduce these losses, ultimately improving efficiency and providing a way to meet the government’s vision of ‘24-hour power for all’.
In the first phase, EESL will replace 75,000 traditional meters with smart meters, which will increase consumer convenience and rationalise the power consumption of the states. EESL will fund, establish, operate and manage the smart metering solution in project areas. It will select a systems integrator to implement the AMI solution within six months and integrate it with the legacy IT systems of the states’ municipalities.

Tata Power Delhi Distribution Co. Ltd (TPDDL) is a joint venture between the Delhi government and Tata Power, which has also set the goal of installing smart meters in the capital and launched an Android mobile app for the purpose. In the first phase, 25,000 smart meters will be installed by TPDDL in the north and northwest of Delhi. By 2025, 160,000 smart meters will be put into use.

No need for new meters
The good news is that consumers don’t need to buy smart devices, but can use the existing devices and still be able to automate their homes. With smart meters and a smart grid or back-end infrastructure, even distribution companies will get smart. In the future, during peak demand periods, consumers will receive a message on their mobile phones offering them various options to reduce unit consumption.

As already stated, across the country, many pilot programmes that use smart meters and the latest technology are being evaluated for implementation. Omron has developed a tamper-proof sensor for smart meters, which is being used by Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited to withstand high temperatures. Such smart meters are also waterproof and fire-resistant. Tata Power plans to install 250,000 such meters using radiofrequency (RF) mesh technology. CESC, part of the R.P. Sanjiv Goenka Group, is running smart meter pilots across two locations in Kolkata, with plans to deploy 25,000 meters at each place. In Rajasthan, 200,000 meters in Kota and 50,000 meters in Bharatpur will also be powered by RF mesh instruments.

Challenges yet to be overcome
The target for smart meter distribution among the regular electricity usage (200-500 Kwh) consumers and high-usage (above 500KWh) consumers in India have not been met by a long shot yet. As per the government’s Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojna (UDAY) website, of the targeted 5.7 million high-usage consumers across 27 states in India, only 3 prcent have been given smart meters till now. On the other hand, there are 18.4 million electricity consumers who fall under the regular usage category, of whom, only 1 percent have received smart meters till now.

In order to operate effectively, smart meters must reliably send data back to the server, and information technology (IT) systems should be able to extract and process the data. There are several techniques that can be used for this type of communication, but each has its advantages and disadvantages. The GPRS, which uses a SIM card in the meter to send data to the server, has been selected by EESL for the initial procurement activity. However, in a GPRS based network in India, each meter requires a SIM card to communicate with the server. All instruments may not be located in areas with reliable 24/7 connectivity, resulting in incomplete data collection. In many cases, the meter is installed in a basement that has no Internet connectivity.

Another technique involves a radio frequency grid (RF grid) that uses radio waves to communicate between metering groups that send data to a data concentrator unit (DCU) for further transmission to the server. This technique uses existing power lines to transmit data. Although this enables the grid to transmit data on its own power line, in reality, the network display is not good.

With the introduction of low power wide area network (LPWAN) technology, new opportunities for efficient, low power and reliable data transmission have emerged. Transceivers in LPWAN technology only power on when transmitting data, while remaining asleep the rest of the time. This allows much higher power savings compared to the currently used cellular data technology. The right technology must be chosen wisely.

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