Building a Better Prepaid Smart Grid

In 2011, Exceleron opened its India office as part of the company’s strong growth as a leading provider of prepaid solutions for utilities. Over the past decade while building a team in Bengaluru, I have learned much as the company deployed prepaid solutions at more than 50 utilities. Now, as India prepares to roll-out 25-crore prepaid smart-meters, I am grateful to be able to share a few lessons learned:

A Strong Architectural Foundation Is Critical

In the early stages of consideration, the system architecture and design of the solution will determine its return on investment, maintainability, and the overall longevity of its success. There are several key architectural decisions for DISCOMs to consider:

  • Software vs. Hardware Based Solutions. The early prepaid solutions made popular internationally during the last decades of the 20th century were hardware based – the customer used a token system at the meter to recharge their prepaid balance and the meter tracked the balance at the residence. This method has fallen out of favor as technology has evolved with many mature prepaid programs seeking to upgrade hardware systems to newer software-based technologies. Software prepaid solutions calculate the balance in the cloud using smart metering data to decrement the balance. This allows DISCOMS to select best-of-breed meter and AMI technologies separately from the prepaid solution while being able to upgrade the prepaid software continuously without having to perform costly upgrades to the meter. This eliminates vendor-lock-in with the meter and reduces maintenance costs for the solution.
  • Stand-alone Prepaid Software vs. Customized MDMS Features. Meter Data Management Systems collect vast repositories of data from multiple sources for the purpose of reporting. They are not intended to be transactional, let alone track daily balances and manage daily customer alerts. Adding prepaid functionality into the MDMS will increase maintenance costs and require additional testing as part of the feature release process. Utilizing a best-in-breed prepaid software solution that has been deployed at numerous utilities will provide utilities with greater feature sets and lower maintenance costs.
  • SaaS vs. Back-Office Implementation. When Exceleron introduced the world’s first cloud-based SaaS solution in 2004, there was little indication of how popular cloud-based software would become. SaaS solutions now offer highly secure and scalable connectivity with lower total cost-of-ownership, lower resource requirements, and lower maintenance costs while allowing for faster and continuous feature deployment.
  • Scalability. At full deployment, India’s 25-crore prepaid meters will represent the largest collection of prepaid meters in the world. As there will be numerous DISCOMs implementing prepaid over time, selecting a solution that can scale horizontally while maintaining a pay-as-you-grow cost model will be critical. The first DISCOMs implementing prepaid will not want to pay for a system that scales to 25-crore prepaid meters and DISCOMs that follow will expect the solution to be designed from-the-ground-up to scale to meet their needs.

Apply Lessons Learned

Exceleron has been on the forefront of deploying some of the most successful prepaid program in the world since 2004 and has built a wealth of knowledge and experience. Here are some notable lessons that India’s DISCOMs should consider:

  • Seek Out Best-Practice Experience. Vendors that have deployed numerous prepaid solutions will have a better library of best practices and expertise based on lessons-learned directly from utilities. Best-practices must continue to adapt and evolve as industry and consumer requirements change. Although each DISCOM may have different needs, there is a set of best-practices which will save time and money.
  • Create Well-Defined Business Rules and Follow Them. Implementation should start with blueprinting your processes thoroughly. It may be tempting to create customer or operational exceptions as you implement, but this will only lead to increased phone calls, requests for more exceptions and higher maintenance costs.
  • Configure Business Rules. Each DISCOM will have different business rules. For this reason, select a prepaid solution that has been deployed at many utilities and supports business rules through configuration, not software code modification. Custom-coded business rules will lead to higher resource, testing and maintenance costs. Prepaid solutions that have only been deployed at fewer locations will not have the breadth of business rule configuration necessary to handle all use cases.
  • Automation Now Will Save Time Later. The best prepaid solutions support a high degree of automation. DISCOMs should fully automate their processes and integrations as much as possible. It may cost more up front, but it will save significant time, money, and effort later. It will also ensure employees tasked with running the system remain its biggest proponents versus bearing the brunt of manual entries and workflows.
  • Invest in Consumer Education. The best prepaid solutions will be unsuccessful if there is not sufficient education on how the program works. Consumer understanding is critical to self-management and eliminating customer calls while maintaining higher customer satisfaction. Leverage your vendor to build an educational library for use in the customer on-boarding process.
  • Build a Best-of-Breed Partner Ecosystem. Exceleron has provided prepaid services as part of over 100 smart meter implementations. We have integrated our prepaid solution with all the major CIS/Billing Systems (25+) and all the major AMI/Head-End/MDMS providers (10+). It takes a great ecosystem of best-of-breed companies providing IT and deployment services, smart metering technology and core utility metering capabilities to successfully deploy smart meter systems that are future proof, interoperable and with the highest return on investment.

The Stakes Are High – We Must Move Forward.  The global pandemic is the most significant economic and cross-cultural challenge of this generation. Though the lockdown has impeded progress, it must not halt India’s plans to transform its power sector and “electrify the economy” via a prepaid smart meter roll-out. We must move forward with the right architecture and we must mitigate risk through the application of lessons learned from countless prior prepaid implementations. We must not miss the opportunity to forever change our struggling power sector for the betterment of our DISCOMs and their customers – our fortitude and foresight now will reward India generously in the future.

Vasundhar is the Head of India Operations at Exceleron Software.  He is passionate about building technology that helps empower people. During his tenure with Exceleron he built the Development and Research team. Before joining Exceleron, he worked for many B2B, B2C and services firms. He holds a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Madras & Studied Global Business Management at IIM Calcutta. Can be reached at vasundhar@exceleron.com

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