Billing complaints can be resolved with smart meters
Last year 60% of all the complaints energywatch received were from consumers with billing issues. Late, inaccurate, infrequent and estimated bills caused serious problems for many families and businesses trying to balance their finances. Many would end up in debt, be threatened with disconnection and forced to use prepayment meters that, in the UK, tend to be the most expensive payment method.
While the Canadian federal government regulates meters under the national Electricity & Gas Inspection Act, the electricity market is a provincial jurisdiction.
Three provinces – Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick – have deregulated their wholesale electricity markets. The rest are supplied by traditional utility structures. Several of these, including British Columbia and Quebec, have undertaken automatic meter reading pilots. In May 2002, Ontario opened deregulated markets for both wholesale and retail electricity. Consumers could choose their supplier and prices would float to match supply and demand. The retail market lasted only a few months, during which the wholesale price reached $102.8/kWh Canadian.
The metering industry in central Europe is dominated by Germany, which in turn influences surrounding countries such as Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Benelux.
The German influence starts at the technical and standardisation levels, reaching back to the era of first electrification in the 19th century, and goes to recent business expansion of German multinational utilities in the area. The region has almost 100 million electrical customers, of which Germany has 43 million, Poland 25, Benelux 11, Austria 4, Hungary 7, Czech 6 and Slovenia 0.8 million. The deregulation of the energy market will be fully implemented in the year 2007. In recent years we have been faced with the internationalisation of the energy business, so there were investments by German E.ON and RWE in Austrian, Czech, Polish and Hungarian utilities, and by the Swedish company Vattenfall in Germany and Poland. The majority of the installed meters are still mechanical.
Until the late 1990s electronic meters were being deployed for industrial and utility metering only, but after 2001 there was a paradigm shift in the deployment of electronic energy meters in other sectors such as the commercial, residential and agricultural environments.
Thanks to prime drivers such as APDRP (Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme) and stringent regulatory measures, the Indian electronic energy meter markets are experiencing greater volumes with innovative product features. One of the unique features of the Indian meter specifications is stringent tamperproof design. The meter design should ensure detection and recording of tamper and accurate functioning under tamper condition.
No industrialist ignores the importance of establishing harmony among the investments across his production lines; over-investment on one section necessarily implies under-investment in another where improvements should be made. This will produce bottle-necks and maybe the production line stopping, with well-known economic consequences for the company.
Electrical utilities in Argentina basically link two functions in the unbundling market – distribution and electricity trade for their small customers. This trade function, which consists of buying electric energy in the bulk market and selling it to customers, is most of the time considered as a part of the general business and not as an independent business.
Metering is part of this trade business, but as far as investment levels and maintenance resources are concerned it competes with distribution, which is usually considered the core business. Nevertheless the ‘last mile’ is gaining new relevance as the customer front-end and the place where the utilities’ value chain could grow.
In a ten year period of energy abundance, when generation costs decreased from around US$28/MWh to US$14/MWh and customer rates decreased from US$107/MWh to US$79/MWh (based on 2001 rates, before the economic crisis and currency devaluation), it did not seem reasonable to invest in electricity control devices to help with energy management. We knew about the energy crises in California and Brazil, of course, but the scenario said that Argentina had enough energy reserves.
But things change – and as Mr. Murphy and his law suggest, often at the worst possible time.
The economy of China is expected to maintain this strong growth in the next five to ten years, due to four dynamic cyclical trends – an increase in local consumption, adjustment of the industry structure, accelerating urbanisation and the shift of global manufacturing to China. These vigorous engines have put the reform and development of public utilities on an upward path since 2002, while also bringing greater challenges to the utilities.
The national electricity utility Electricidade de Mozambique (EDM), as a parastatal, suffers from many operational problems which have led to its current financial challenges. Chief of these is the increased cost of meter reading and the utility’s inability to efficiently collect revenues from its 250,000 customer base. A pilot programme of about 5,000 prepayment meters seems to have passed the test, and the utility has obtained funding from the World Bank to install a substantial base of prepayment or fixed rate meters. Fixed rate meters may be the best alternative for such a low customer base, where the costly support equipment for prepaid meters is not needed. A fixed rate meter is the intelligent equivalent of a load limiter, with the major difference that the consumer can accumulate energy for use in the future.
Complementing the commercial focus by EDM to attend to efficient revenue collection, the government is in the process of making CNELEC, the electricity regulatory arm of the Ministry of Energy, operational. CNELEC’s initial task will be to address the thorny issue of tariffs and attending to associated customer complaints. Allowing a professional entity as opposed to politicians to tackle these issues should give confidence to both consumers and investors. The combination of a focus on revenue collection and the setting of retail tariffs should enable EDM – or any other players allowed to participate in the supply industry in Mozambique – to achieve the electrification targets set by the government.
Mozambique is blessed with tremendous hydro-electric potential on the Zambezi River (about 3,000 MW), gas potential (about 800 MW) and coal (1,000 MW). The Mozal aluminium smelter in Mozambique requires an additional 610 MW in the next few years, titanium extraction requires up to 380 MW and EDM itself an additional 500 MW, all of which can be made available from local resources. To know how much is being produced and how much is being consumed will require multi-quadrant meters with remote communications facilities.
The potential for metering is quite substantial as the country continues to enjoy peace, stability and economic growth (which has been at about 8% per annum). Moving from an electrification rate of 6% to 20% is expected to require about US$800 million investment in infrastructure.
Major projects are now underway in both countries with the aim of improving efficiency and customer service through the implementation of intelligent metering technology. By 2010 at least 60 percent of Scandinavia’s 13 million power network customers will be covered by AMR.
Scandinavia is a region covering 1.2 million square kilometres with a population of 24 million people who are served by over 400 power utilities. E.ON, Fortum and Vattenfall are the market leaders in Sweden and Finland, while domestic companies such as NESA and Hafslund hold the top positions in Denmark and Norway. Together Scandinavia’s ten largest power utilities have a market share of around 50%. The other 50% is divided among small local power utilities that usually have less than 20,000 customers.
Ten years after the first steps in the creation of a common regional energy market Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden remain at the forefront of the development of the European electricity industry. An abundant supply of hydroelectric power has made the countries in the region heavily dependent on electric energy – for instance, Norway’s annual electricity consumption of 26,000 kWh per capita is over four times higher than the EU average.
It is therefore not surprising that there has been much interest in AMR technology in the Scandinavian countries. Market regulators, particularly in Sweden and Norway, have found many reasons for promoting the technology. A transition from estimated billing to tariff-based actual consumption is regarded as important for improving market efficiency and promoting energy conservation. Swedish authorities found a solid case for requiring more frequent meter readings, but their Norwegian counterparts are still undecided –costs for consumers are deemed to be too high in relation to the benefits if Norway adopts metering regulation based on the Swedish example.
Two years after the decision in the Swedish parliament and four years before the final deadline in July 2009 there are still open contracts for the upgrading of 4.5 million meters. Among the leading players only Vattenfall guarantees that it will meet the deadline. Vattenfall has also begun implementing AMR in Finland and may be followed by Fortum, which has over twice as many network customers in Sweden as in its domestic market. E.ON Finland intends to cover at least two thirds of its network customers with AMR by 2012.
Denmark is, however, possibly the most interesting Scandinavian country to watch at the moment. Two of the country’s five largest power utilities, one of them the market leader NESA, have taken independent initiatives to upgrade their distribution networks for remote meter reading. NESA has developed a customised in-house metering solution based on GSM/GPRS data communication. When fully deployed in 2010 it will connect over 500,000 electricity meters to the GSM/GPRS network operated by Sonofon in Denmark.
Some utilities have developed this practice to a fine art. If you are a supplier of products or services to the utility industry, you will know exactly what I mean. The utility culture seems to be becoming more imperial, more highhanded, more reflective of a notion that direct, immediate, first person communications are to be avoided at all costs. Perish the thought that someone should answer their phone after the first ring or two, without knowing who is actually on the other end of the line!
Several years ago a senior telecommunications manager of a New York State investor-owned utility confided to me that he NEVER answers his phone. He explained that he lets all calls go to voice mail, even if he is sitting right there when the phone rings and is not too busy at that time. I asked why. He replied, “This way I can listen to all the incoming calls later – when I am in the mood – and then decide if I want to return any of them.” Needless to say, the frustration and added cost of trying to work with this individual were of no concern to him.
Everyone is busy. Everyone is challenged to manage their time. How can we communicate more effectively, more efficiently? Well, e-mail has certainly become a means of conveying a message, of leaving word, of suggesting an action … whether the other party is available to reply at that instant or not. E-mail has become an essential tool in the past decade. It certainly has its place. But it is also another way to hide from direct, immediate, interpersonal communication!
Many of us are not world-class typists. Many more of us (engineers pay heed) may not be very good at written communication of any sort. Yet, more and more, e-mail has replaced the simple, direct, and far more information-rich phone call. As a result, late or bad decisions are made, often based upon too little data or a lack of a broader understanding of the problem – something a person-to-person call could probably have prevented.
No, I am not suggesting that we abandon e-mail. I am suggesting that we stop and think before composing an e-mail, and ask ourselves if a phone call might be faster, better, more complete. We must ask ourselves if that phone call will personalise the relationship and make it more social, effective and satisfying. Ah, but if the other party is hiding and never answers his phone, this isn’t going to work, is it?
Utility personnel who are in a position to influence major business decisions such as large meter and AMR procurements, naturally get a lot of attention from suppliers who hope to score major contracts. Those utility people are not unaware of their power. Too often that “power” over potential suppliers turns into veiled arrogance. And this arrogance and lack of humility may be reinforced by suppliers, who must tolerate sloppy business practices to “stay in the game.” A clear symptom of an arrogant buyer or flawed utility culture is that senior utility manager who doesn’t exhibit the common courtesy of promptly returning phone calls.
A senior VP of a different New York State investor-owned utility is revered within his company and by the industry. Why? Many reasons, but one is simply that he promptly answers his own phone. He returns calls promptly. He is an effective communicator, who knows that a short phone call gets answers right now. He has e-mail, and voice mail covers his calls when he can’t. But they are just tools. He doesn’t hide behind them.
My message is this. All of us, especially utility personnel, must constantly ask ourselves, “What is the most effective way to communicate in this particular case? Is a phone call best? Isn’t the value of a voice, the personal touch, always better than an e-mail?”
Suppliers must answer their phones, politely and efficiently, as part of serving their industry. But some utility people, without the same business survival imperative of vendors, seem to think that it is frivolous to answer their phones. Or that it is frivolous to promptly respond to voice mail when using voice mail was necessary. We can all do better if we stop hiding and start communicating.
Most governments have paid attention to the utility industry as part of the drive to improve important infrastructure. Countries in the Australasia region are facing challenges such as privatisation, deregulation, power shortages and ageing distribution systems and are turning them into opportunities to enhance efficiency and improve customer support.
The region is also very diverse. Countries such as Japan, Australia and Singapore are well established; China and India are emerging as new economic powers. Whatever the situation, there is a greater focus on how technology can improve operational efficiencies, reduce costs, conserve vital resources and deliver better value to customers.
One of the key areas of focus is the use of new technologies to better explore the value of their meter data. From the meter itself to the collection of data and the software available to perform advanced analytics, utilities are looking for solutions that give them greater access to, and control over, one of their most valuable resources – data. Technologies being deployed include: