Consumer Connect:Key to the success of the smart metering programme

By Anil Rawal, MD and CEO, IntelliSmart Infrastructure Pvt. Limited

As the world shifts towards renewable sources of electricity, India has committed to a path of energy tran­sition and net zero with its new energy outlook. The country aims to achieve a re­newable capacity of 500 GW, with ap­p­roximately 30 per cent of vehicles in India running on electricity by 2030. To achieve these goals, the grid must be developed to manage the energy transition and integrate variable energy sources and e-mo­bility. Digital technologies will play a crucial role in efficient demand-side ma­nagement and the seamless integration of variable energy sources.

A socio-economic transition more than an energy transition

India has undertaken the ambitious challenge of digitalisation at the grassroots level by targeting 250 million smart prepaid meters nationwide. This digitalisation drive is expected to become one of the world’s largest in the coming years. This initiative will have an impact on the mindset of the population, creating a sense of ownership and responsibility towards energy usage.

The programme is a tool for the democratisation of electricity, empowering consumers to have control over their power consumption. The successful implementation of this programme will re­q­uire changing the minds of the masses before starting work on the ground. The success of the programme depends on the willingness of India’s 1.25 billion consumers to embrace electricity as a valuable service, one that is delivered with a commitment to quality and at a fair price. If consumers can recognise the benefits of reliable and high quality electricity and are willing to pay for it, the programme will see even greater success.

The Assam experience

Assam recently completed the installation of about 225,000 smart prepaid meters, marking the implementation of the first-ever competitively bid smart metering project under the Revamped Distribution Sector Scheme. Further, the Council on Water, Energy and Environ­ment recently released a survey report of six states to provide insights that will fa­cilitate a consumer-centric smart me­te­ring transition in India. According to the report, Assam has the highest percentage of satisfied consumers, scoring the highest in all key determinants of consumer satisfaction.

For the Assam project, the Advanced Me­tering Infrastructure Service Provider (AMISP), along with the distribution company, designed and implemented a first-of-its-kind customised consumer experience programme with the aim of standardising a consumer engagement playbook that will make the smart meter implementation process smooth and unobtrusive. The key elements of the programme include:

  • Area meetings with the local administration and discom: In selected locations, the AMISP required local ad­mi­nistration and discom officials to connect better with the local people. With their support, we have been organising “mohalla” gatherings to share information on smart meters and raise consumer awareness about its benefits.
  • Audio relay: To address high resistance in areas where new-age awareness mediums seemed inefficient, the AMISP used a communication medium that consumers have a strong connection with – mobile audio relay, co­mmonly known as “micing”. It has hel­p­ed in penetrating low-income group areas and countering myths and misinformation that have hindered the adoption of smart meters.
  • Pamphlet distribution/Standees and banners: The analysis shows that if consumers are briefed properly with pamphlets that serve as a personal connect tool, detailing the benefits of smart prepaid meters, the likelihood of acceptance improves significantly. Hence, it has become a mandatory practice to distribute pamphlets during consu­mer indexing and smart meter installation. The pamphlets in­clude a phone number belonging to the AMISP’s central customer care, where consumers can register their complaints.
  • Smart meter display wall: The AMISP has also installed smart meter display wa­lls in the discom subdivisions to fa­mi­liarise customers with the product and its functions. This interactive and engaging tool allows consumers to familiarise themselves with the concept and gain first-hand knowledge of how it works.
  • Mobile application: The most critical intervention in the smart meter installation process has been the development of a home-grown app that ma­kes meter installation a digital process and reduces the dependence on manpower. The app has over 40 built-in checks to ensure that the digital control and integrity of the process are strictly maintained.
  • Co-ownership by the utility: The utility Ass­am has adopted a forward-looking approach treating the smart me­te­ring project as a flagship project and co-owning the project along with the AMISP. It is important to note that con­sumers tend to identify more with utilities than project developers. In this situation, utilities need to come forward and move away from the mindset of relying solely on EPC contracts, where all issues are parked with the contractor. In smart metering, utilities have to be the face of the projects and engage actively with consumers.
  • Real-time feedback mechanism: Ass­am has established a real-time feedback mechanism for consumers, which helps them provide feedback on the installation and service provided. The feedback mechanism includes an IVR-based system where consumers can pro­vide feedback by calling on the toll-free number. The feedback helps us improve the installation process and service delivery. It also helps in building consumer trust and confidence in the smart metering programme.

The way forward

The smart metering programme is a critical step towards achieving India’s energy transition and net zero targets. Its success depends on consumer engagement and their understanding of the benefits of smart metering. The progra­m­me has the potential to transform the electricity distribution sector in India, fostering a culture of energy conservation and efficiency. The experience in As­sam provides valuable insights on how to develop a consumer-centric sm­a­rt metering programme. It is important to establish the positives of the progra­m­me among the masses before its im­plementation on the ground.

The consumer connect programme mu­st go hand in hand with meter roll-outs for greater success. The programme could be divided into two tranches. The first tranche could be at the national level and should be consistently promoted through national media sources to create a buzz around the programme and remove the misconceptions among consumers. The other tranche could be at the state and utility level, aligned with the progress of the programme running in that particular state. The state programme must have multiple streams, in­cluding various local and media so-urces as well as unconventional channels, to establish the local connect. We all need to understand that this prog­ramme presents a significant opportunity for the country to not only transition to healthier utilities, and more aware and em­powered consumers, but also democratise and decentralise electricity, which is a long-awaited development in the country.