“Get us a meter for the African market and the rest of the world will follow”Franco

Exclusive interview with Franco Pucci, Director, STS Association (Standard Transfer Specification) and panelist in the metering track at the upcoming African Utility Week conference in Cape Town in May.

1. Tell us more about your organisation and your activities in the utility industry.
I am a private technical consultant to the Standard Transfer Specification (STS) Association. I am also an owner and director of a company specializing in industrial control and automation. I am a member of IEC Technical Committee TC13, involved in the metering arena. We are responsible for the generation and maintenance of specifications in the prepayment industry for the IEC (the South African chapter). I have been involved in the prepayment industry since its inception in the late 1980s and was previously Technical Director of Conlog for 14 years – a major player and manufacturer of prepayment meters and vending systems.

 2. Any specific project updates/success stories that you can share?
I guess the increase in interest in the STS specification is a good sign of a growing competitor base for the industry, which in turn shows a growing market – there are still many millions of homes to electrify. The success of prepayment in South Africa over the past 20 years, and since its inception in this country, all over the world, is yet another feather in our cap. South Africa is no longer the biggest user of prepayment systems in the world. This is a very positive sign that the systems works!

3. What in your view are the main challenges currently to the energy industry in Africa?
This is a two pronged problem: on the one hand we are faced with the need to electrify houses to give people power, on the other hand we are faced with the inability to generate this power. The neglect that has been evident in the maintenance of the power generation capacity of South Africa has eventually caught up with us. The worldwide hype about Smart Meters and Smart Grid does not help the situation. Many of the utilities in Africa want to have smart metering without fully understanding the implications of a smart metering system – there are many levels of “Smart”, ranging from a simple meter with communications back to a central server, to a “1st World” smart meter. The costs are vastly different. The amount of data required to be managed is vastly different. The expertise required to manage this data is vastly different. The networks and communications infrastructure required to run these systems are certainly not of the standard we have in Africa!

In some cases, the cost of the meter and associated communications infrastructure cost more than the dwelling that the meter will be installed in. In my view, Africa has far bigger challenges facing it than the deployment of smart meters. Let us focus on stabilizing our networks, both the grid, and the communications network, before embarking on a seriously expensive exercise that will simply add fuel to the existing fire.

4. What is your vision for this industry?
There is still much potential for improvement in the prepayment industry in Africa, and the world for that matter. Over the past few years the STS Association has seen its membership growing at an increasing rate – proof that the STS standard is gaining acceptance worldwide. I do not believe that, as many would say, the industry has reached saturation – sure there are many more players in the marketplace now that there were a few years ago, but this is a good sign – a sign of growth rather than a sign of stagnation. The prepayment industry must now focus its efforts into the generation of power from sustainable renewable energy sources – wind, solar, gas, micro generation. And the prepayment meters must transform accordingly to allow this. Africa, and indeed the rest of the “Third World” need a smart meter suited to their needs and pockets.

5. You are part of the conference programme at this year’s African Utility Week in May, what will be your message?
Focus on our problems and find suitable solutions – forget the hype on smart grids for the next few years. Fix the current problems.

6. What are you most looking forward to at African Utility Week?
Let us see if the messages are any different to the last few years… let’s see if the realization of the real problems has surfaced yet.

7. Anything you would like to add?
South Africa has led in this industry for many years, and seems to have lost its edge – we must try to get it back again. Get us a meter for the African market and the rest of the world will follow.