By Shawn Papi, Senior Advisor – Eskom Research Testing & Development at Eskom, South Africa and member of AFSEC TC13
African (and global) utilities are facing a ‘death spiral’ brought on by customer dissatisfaction, unsustainable business operations and escalating revenue losses. Each of these threats can be managed through metering projects and even more so when this tool is backed up by standards.
While smart metering can assist in addressing both the technical and non-technical utility challenges, we are seeing a sluggish adoption of the technology on the African continent. And thus as a continent, we continue to forfeit the benefits of this widely available technological solution. The question addressed herein is how smart metering standards can be used to address the design of metering rollout programmes.
Reasons for sluggish adoption
Low or no competitive pricing: Smart metering deployments in Africa differ vastly from one region or country to another where the systems deployed and techniques used differ substantially from a technical specification perspective.
For instance, a recent smart meter deployment at an East African utility used broadband power line communication (BPLC), while in the same region there are tenders for smart meters using OSGP PLC technology. Furthermore, South Africa has embraced G3-PLC while in North African countries there are planned and/or existing deployments using PRIME PLC. These significant differences in technology choices perpetuate single vendor lock-in and consequently, high costs for procurement of smart metering systems.
Lack of know-how: There is a perception that smart metering systems are overly complex and thus a lot of utility engineers are hesitant in fully embracing the technology. Most often, the source of knowledge are OEM marketing brochures and not thorough engineering literature. It is for this reason that standards become important.
Standardisation is not the enemy
By design, standards are meant to enable the development of open technology solutions. In this respect, ‘open’ means that the information to develop the technology is publically available and any vendor/developer can access it. Furthermore, ‘open’ implies that it will be possible to independently assess each product implementation and thus ensure reliability, safety and interoperability.
Lastly, use of open standards will enable competition from multiple vendors and very possibly, this will result in the decrease of the cost of procurement, particularly where there are reasonable economies of scale. In short, to ensure the availability of state-of-the-art smart metering technology at reasonable costs there needs to be a concerted effort across the continent to adopt a common set of standards addressing interoperability, safety, reliability and metrology.
To address the issue pertaining to sluggish adoption of smart metering technology – the perceived lack of know-how – here again, standards are the solution. Standards, largely, incorporate learning from multiple countries and experts, and as such are a rich source for ‘know-how’ where technology is concerned. That being said, African utilities can leapfrog the smart metering learning curve by using existing standards as the basis to develop their own procurement specifications and technical adjudication criteria.
It is evident that the use of common standards for smart metering systems can both plug the knowledge gap on the utility side and create competition among technology vendors, thus paving the way for accelerated adoption of smart metering technology and reaping its vast benefits immediately.
Importance of selecting the right metering technology
Smart meters are designed for long life cycles, e.g. 10 to 15 years, over which they need to deliver a tangible return on investment both in terms of revenue collection and other services.
Furthermore, smart metering devices form a substantial part of cost of investment for smart metering systems. In light of these facts, it is important that the user (utility) selects a technology that shields it from premature failures and high capital costs.
The former may result from low-quality components used to build the smart metering devices or even unavailability of replacement devices should the supplier go out of business early in the lifecycle of the deployed smart meter population.
Thus a utility should select a technology that does not depend on a single vendor for sustainability and that is future proof. In Africa, there are too many examples of early decommissioning of smart metering systems mostly due to the selection of inappropriate technology.
The deployment of smart metering systems is a substantial investment on the part of utilities and selecting an inadequate technological solution may result in severe financial losses for the utility involved. The failed metering rollout will also add to the rate of customer dissatisfaction.
Help is on the way: AFSEC Guide for application of standards for smart metering systems
The African Electrotechnical Standardisation Commission (AFSEC) has over the past few years identified a number of key IEC smart metering standards for the purpose of adoption across the African continent. However, what has been missing is guidance on how these standards can be applied, practically, in the development of utility specifications. It is for this reason that AFSEC has prepared and published the AFSEC Guide 02: Guide for Application of Standards for Smart Metering Systems in Africa.
This publication provides guidance to utilities with regard to the application of standards in the design and specification of ‘fit for purpose’ and interoperable smart metering systems. It further highlights new regulatory requirements relating to the safe operation and maintenance of such systems, in particular for functions such as remote load management and cybersecurity.
Additionally, guidance on contracting and procurement strategies and phased deployment of the ICT aspects of smart metering systems is provided.
This guide promotes the use of internationally recognised open standards as the basis for technology selection and system design, and if followed will create much-needed cohesion in the specification of African smart metering systems and provide assurance of competitive procurement and deployment costs, increase in smart metering technology adoption, return on investment, and the rollout of safe and quality smart metering systems. ESI
About the association
The African Electrotechnical Standardisation Commission promotes inter-African cooperation for everything related to standardisation and related problems, such as the assessment of the compliance with the standards, in the fields of electricity, electronics and related technologies.
Visit the AFSEC website to download the Guide 02 publication.
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