Promoting Uptake: Regulators’ role in addressing smart metering challenges

Regulators’ role in addressing smart metering challenges

Power utilities across the country are undertaking the large-scale adoption of smart meters in their distribution areas with the aim to minimise network losses, improve power supply management and enable consumers to manage their consumption patterns. However, the adoption of smart meters poses a host of challenges  like management of data generated from these meters, cybersecurity threats and huge replacement costs.

Regulator’s role

On the metering front, the regulator needs to ensure that the meters provide accurate and reliable information to the discoms and the consumers. Consumers expect quality power supply with zero voltage and frequency fluctuations, in addition to compensation for fluctuations in power supply and outages. Currently, there is no mechanism to accurately capture the event for which the consumer seeks to be compensated. With the coming of smart meters, the priority for the regulators is to ensure that such events are accurately identified. Further, whether these qualify as a deviation in the standards of performance (SoP) needs to be validated. The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commision (DERC) has approved a capital expenditure of around Rs 10 billion for the discoms towards smart metering. The first phase of installation of smart meters has been approved for all discoms. Meanwhile, for Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited, DERC has approved the second phase entailing smart meter installation for high voltage consumers.

On the technology front, discoms have the liberty to adopt the best-suited technology solution. However, regulators aim to ensure that the payback period for the investments made towards meters should not exceed seven years. Although the contract signed between the discoms and the meter manufacturers is bilateral in nature with no regulatory interference, the discoms need to ensure that they purchase quality meters. The regulator has specified the life of a meter as 15 years, and in case of meter malfunction during this period owing to voltage fluctuations, frequency violations or other similar occurrences, the cost of the new meters needs to be borne by the discom.

Regarding the replacement of the existing meters with smart meters, DERC has suggested the discoms to install the meters removed from the distribution transformers on the distribution poles. In case the meters are installed at the distribution pole level, losses for a cluster of consumers could be recorded, which would help in theft identification in high loss areas. In many areas in Delhi, loss levels are as high as 50-60 per cent, clearly implying electricity theft. In such areas, based on the pole–specific losses, the source of theft can be identified and corrective measures can be taken.

Issues and challenges

In addition to the above challenges, regulators have identified other key factors that discoms must keep in mind while deploying smart meters. One of these pertains to managing and analysing the large amount of data generated by these meters. Back-up of data needs to be maintained and managed, according to the utility requirements, at the data storage centres. This will ensure data retrieval in case of any accident. The duration for which the data will be available – needs to be kept in mind while managing and storing it. Regulators have also emphasised the importance of ensuring cybersecurity and protecting the smart metering system against cybercrimes and data manipulations. Another challenge is arranging for the huge manpower needed to undertake meter replacements. For instance, there are around 5.80 million power consumers in Delhi. As per the assessment made by DERC, a personnel group can replace six to seven meters in a single day. Therefore, for replacing all the existing meters in five years, about 2,000 such groups of people would be required, and these people will become redundant after the replacement work is over. Even if people are hired on a temporary basis for the installation of meters, a significant number of discom personnel would be required on a daily basis to put seals on the meters.

Another issue that regulators have identified is meter tampering, for which there are no special standards specified by the regulator. However, discoms need to comply with the meter specifications approved by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Discoms can put anti-tampering seals on meters. However, it has been seen that consumers always manage to find ways to tamper with the new technologies. Even with smart meters, foolproof protection against meter tampering cannot be ensured. Currently, the meters are placed in enclosures outside the consumer premises since these are read physically. However, smart meters which offer remote reading can be placed inside the consumer premises, thereby making  the consumers accountable for tampering of any sort.

Net net, the adoption of smart meters by the utilities is much needed in view of the benefits it offers. Further, regulators feel that the discoms must take into account local conditions, and the needs and requirements of a particular distribution area as it would minimise costs and ensure efficient meter operations.

Based on views expressed by B.P. Singh, Member, DERC, at a recent Power Line conference