APDCL: Investing in technology and grid modernisation

Investing in technology and grid modernisation

Assam Power Distribution Company Limited (APDCL) was incorporated in 2009-10 by the state government of Assam after consolidating and merging three distribution agencies – lower, central and upper assam distribution companies. Headquartered in Guwahati, the company is responsible for supplying electricity to all the districts in the state and caters to a customer base of around 6.02 million. The distribution company provides service to a user base located in a diverse terrains while expanding its reach in more remote areas of the state. APDCL secured a B+ rating in the latest (2019) utility rankings by the Power Finance Corporation.

In recent years, it has significantly reduced aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses, which stand at around 19.8 per cent at present. APDCL has been undertaking investments in a number of technology areas to modernise and upgrade its network. These initiatives include the use of smart meters, SCADA, spot billing and MDAS. This move has helped the utility to weather the pandemic. Going forward, the discom plans to implement smart metering with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) as well as incorporate AI-based solutions.

Current infrastructure and performance

APDCL has a substation capacity of 4506.04 MVA, spread across 451 substations of 33/11 kV. Further, it owns 532 feeders of 33 kV, 1,695 feeders of 11 kV, 290,684 ckt. km of line length in total. It sold 7,099.83 MUs of electricity during 2018-19. During the first half of 2019-20, the discom’s energy sales were reported to be 3,765.31 MUs.

It has also made a lot of progress in smart metering, having already installed over 73,000 meters. The company has also floated a tender for 268,000 smart meters. Moreover, it has achieved 100 per cent feeder metering in urban areas and 30 per cent progress in rural areas as of September 2020.

It has brought down its high AT&C losses, from 25.5 per cent during 2015-16 to 19.87 per cent during 2018-19, and is further targeting to reduce these to 15 per cent. Meanwhile, the discom posted a distribution loss of 19.7 per cent during 2018-19 and 19.5 per cent during 2019-20, higher than the target of 16.85 per cent and 16 per cent set by the regulator for the respective years.

It is notable that in UDAY’s quarterly rankings for September 2020 APDCL stood at 12th position in terms of operational and financial performance. This is remarkable considering its diverse set of customers and geographically uneven area of service.

The revenue of the company during 2018-19 stood at Rs 54.79 billion while its net profit was Rs 0.21 billion vis-à-vis the previous year’s profit after tax of Rs 1.64 billion, owing to the high cost of purchasing power during 2018-19.

Key initiatives

One of the key initiatives undertaken by APDCL has been a migration from the decentralised software for metering, billing and collection (MBC)  to a more centrally managed in-house MBC and CRM application.  The MBC software was extremely expensive for the company to use for catering to the majority of its rural customer base. This transition is expected to reduce APDCL’s expenditure substantially. The agency implementing the new application claimed unusually high commercials for even minor changes. The entire consumer base, including consumers covered under the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (R-APDRP), Part A, are being migrated to the APDCL Revenue Management System (ARMS). As of December 2020, the billing of 5.5 million consumers of APDCL out of 6.1 million consumers has been shifted to the new software, for uniformity and better consumer response.

Further, APDCL’s in-house IT team has designed and developed a spot billing android-based mobile app, APDCL e-suvidha. It also captures the route map of the meter reader-cum-spot biller, thereby ensuring that no bills are prepared without visiting consumer premises. This encourages consumer engagement and reduces complaints, dependency on third-party implementers and recurring expenditure. It ensures proper monitoring of the meter reading and billing process, and timely receipt of bills by consumers, providing them adequate time for payment. This mechanism has brought down revenue expenditure linked to meter reading, bill preparation and bill despatching by half, in turn reducing lag times related to the delivery of bills to customers and contributing to faster revenue turnovers for the company; ensured consistency in meter monitoring; and lowered the rate of fraud.

SANJOG is another in-house mobile application designed and developed by APDCL’s IT team for releasing new connections on the spot. The photos of the beneficiaries as well as their ID and address proof documents can be scanned and uploaded on the app.

APDCL has successfully completed SCADA automation in Guwahati. The project has enabled APDCL to monitor the status of its distribution network in real time and take up preventive maintenance wherever applicable. The utility has also successfully implemented MDAS for HT consumers, urban DTs and feeders. The successful completion of the project has enabled system-generated energy audits and their integration into the national power portal.

Weathering the pandemic

The Covid-19 crisis impacted the discom’s operations to a certain extent; however, it has managed to stay afloat during this difficult time.

During the lockdown, the installed smart meters as well as AMR modems (for HT consumers) were successfully used to fetch actual meter reading of consumers. For the rest of the consumers, door-to-door meter reading collection/e-suvidha spot billing was not possible. Hence, APDCL’s MBC application was used to prepare estimated revenue bills based on previous consumption of consumers.

APDCL is connected to the BBPS network and is integrated with all major payment banks/wallets. Further, taking a sympathetic view of customers, the discom incentivised timely payments through a policy for providing a rebate of 1 per cent and alternatively reduced the late payment surcharge from 1.5 per cent to 1 per cent, accounting for the tenuous financial condition of its customers.

APDCL has also designed a mobile app, APDCL Easy Pay, which functions just like the local area payment unit (LAPU) used by mobile service providers. Collection agents authorised by APDCL will be able to use this app for door-to-door collection in rural areas.  This app went live in June 2020.

Future plans

The discom is implementing smart metering with AMI. Under the National Smart Grid Mission, the utility oversaw the completion of smart metering and the AMI project in Guwahati, covering over 14,500 consumers. Under UDAY, the process of installing 70,000 smart meters is under way in Guwahati and Dibrugarh, with 30,000 smart meters being already integrated into the APDCL’s billing system. The project has enabled revenue billing on the basis of automated meter reading and remote disconnection of power on the premises of defaulting consumers. The technology used in these smart meters is based on radio frequency canopy, which is considered the most optimal smart metering technology on the basis of evaluation of numerous parameters such as cost, reach, effectiveness and robustness.

APDCL has also floated tenders for the implementation of smart meters with AMI for 268,000 consumers in urban areas. Apart from the primary AMI functionalities, its in-house data analysis team shall use the data generated to do predictive analysis of consumer behaviour.

APDCL has also incorporated an artificial intelligence (AI)-based solution in the spot billing mobile app e-suvidha. In this solution, the meter reader clicks a photo of the meter and the app takes the reading from the photo itself, thereby eliminating human intervention. Instead of traditional technologies such as OCR, AI models are used to extract the reading from the meter photo. The pilot run of the prototype is in progress. The first phase of the pilot has given a success rate of 98 per cent.

APDCL is implementing the IPDS under which 17 out of 19 electrical circles have been completed. Further, under the DDUGJY, a total amount of Rs 12.74 billion was sanctioned; of which Rs 10.92 billion has been released and Rs 9.38 billion has been utilised so far. Also, 100 per cent of feeder metering has been completed while 97 per cent of DTR metering has been achieved as of November 2020.

The discom is also working on infrastructure augmentation through externally aided projects. In order to cope with the rising power demand, APDCL plans to construct 196 new 33/11 kV substations (equivalent to  a capacity addition of 1,670 MVA), a new 33 kV line covering 2,772 km, an 11 kV line covering 4,725.5 km with funding from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank at a cost of Rs 32.84 billion.

Net, net, the company is on a steady path towards improvement, given that it has brought down its AT&C losses, which were among the highest in India, to a more acceptable level of over 19 per cent. It has also improved its revenue intake over a period of time and has reduced its excessive employee-related and administration costs by implementing an in-house metering and revenue management system. While APDCL continues to lose money in AT&C losses, it is expected that the company’s efforts towards grid modernisation, smart metering and technology integration in payment and billing solutions would see it grow in the years to come.