Unpaid bills, electricity theft and meter tampering have challenged utilities since the installation of the first electricity meters. Now the market, facing enormous business challenges, is actively seeking some form of transformation to ensure sustainability. Revenue collection is fundamental to this strategy.
Faulty meters, meter bypassing, meter tampering, inaccurate billing, nonpayment and illegal connections are the most significant contributors when it comes to high revenue losses. A well-established plan will focus on three strategic areas: revenue collection, loss prevention, and the detection of fraudulent activities. Examination of each of these categories will determine the correct counter-measures.
The use of STS (Standard Transfer Specification) prepayment smart meters has increased utility revenue collection by 30% with some areas showing an improvement of 96%. STS is currently the only open, reliable and globally recognised standard for prepaid metering with a footprint of some 50 million meters spread across 98 countries. STS defines a standard of generating tokens which can only be used by the intended meter, and furthermore, in the case of credit tokens, can only be used once in that meter.
The implementation of prepayment smart meters based on STS technology ensures that utilities get payment upfront before resources are consumed. This standard ensures that all aspects of the system are interoperable with no reliance on any one manufacturer. The revenue collected through prepayment metering can be used to fund further fraud prevention and detection mechanisms.
Revenue loss prevention
The concept of meter tampering to access ‘free’ electricity is not new and if successfully carried out, this illegal activity goes undetected. With technology advancements, it has become a lucrative business, requiring utilities and manufacturers to be more innovative in combating this trend.
Although tampering will never be completely eradicated, implementing best practices can significantly reduce revenue losses. The most successful technological change was the establishment of the ‘split meter’ concept. Here the meter’s metrological and accounting functions are separated from the input and display functions typically used by consumers.
In splitting this functionality, consumers no longer have access to the parts of the meter that influence measurement and billing. Where previously the entire meter was installed in the consumer’s premises, the meter is now installed outside either in a kiosk or an enclosure high up on an electricity pole.
In-country regulatory frameworks should incentivise customers to report fraudulent activities and prevent perpetrators from carrying out illegal activities through strict penalties including hefty fines and lengthy jail terms. While conceding that meters can fail, utilities must analyse the frequency with which failures occur. Purchasing cheaper meters to facilitate electricity connection targets often results in increased operating costs as meters need to be replaced on a regular basis. Linked to this, consumers will generally only report faulty meters when inconvenienced by the meter failure.
Investment into known suppliers of metering equipment that produce high quality, reliable products with all the necessary certifications is paramount. Generally, these manufacturers will guarantee the lifespan of their product for at least 10-15 years and have a proven record with a large instalment base. The initial investment may be higher but overall operating costs will be less and revenue intake will increase.
Effective customer service is another means by which utilities can limit the frequency of fraudulent behaviour by consumers. Being able to respond effectively and quickly to customer issues provides the foundation for behaviour change and lowers the likelihood that consumers will take matters into their own hands.
Utility awareness campaigns with a focus on safe energy practices is a must. Assuming that good regulatory practices are in place, customers need to understand the legal and financial implications should they be caught tampering. Most importantly, though, customers need to grasp fully the safety risks involved in tampering with electrical connections.
Revenue loss detection
Following the prevention initiatives, utilities can begin implementing mechanisms for tamper and electricity theft detection. Technology advancements have placed utilities and manufacturers in a prime position to utilise sophisticated yet simple solutions. One such area is through the Internet of Things (IoT), where devices connected to the internet can collect data and share this information with other devices and IT systems. Besides detection technologies implemented in the meters themselves, IT support systems and the processing of Big Data can provide valuable insight and predictability into the detection of non-technical losses.
At the basic level, the physical ability to detect tampering should again focus on the point of connection. Enclosures can be fitted with ingress detection mechanisms that can alert a utility whenever an enclosure is opened without authorisation. Utilities should ensure that they procure meters from manufacturers that employ the latest technology focused on revenue protection. Meters that can measure both live and neutral currents and support sophisticated magnetic field detection capabilities are ideally suited to eliminate most forms of external tampering.
Figures 1 to 10 show several of the methods used to defraud utilities by manipulating the consumption measured by the meter. The ability of meters to measure and compare current in both the live and neutral circuits and differentiate the direction of current flow allows for the detection of the unbalanced and reversed current conditions that are created by fraudulent installations. Detecting these conditions means that utilities can be alerted to the event and can therefore take appropriate action.
Magnetic field interference is another common way of manipulating the measurement accuracy of the meter. This is particularly relevant to measuring devices that use current transformers that can partially or fully saturate in the presence of a strong magnetic field. Utilities should therefore look to products that use direct connection technology and magnetic field detection instead of current transformers for energy measurement.
measurement accuracy of the meter. This is particularly relevant to measuring devices that use current transformers that can partially or fully saturate in the presence of a strong magnetic field. Utilities should therefore look to products that use direct connection technology and magnetic field detection instead of current transformers for energy measurement.
Where a magnetic field strength above a certain threshold is detected in combination with an unbalance in the live and neutral current, the meter should register this as a tamper condition. In this scenario, the magnetic field is being used to influence measurement accuracy. Similarly, in meters that utilise an internal latch, if a magnetic field is detected and load side voltage is measured when the latch should have disconnected the consumer’s supply, a valid tamper condition should be registered.
Electroshock is the process of delivering a high electrical impulse to the meter to damage the internal electronics of the meter. If successful, electroshock will cause the meter to stop measuring the consumption. The mitigation here is again to ensure that products are procured from reputable manufacturers that apply the highest quality standards and meet electrical, mechanical and environmental industry specifications.
Meters should support some form of data protection or security that prevents corruption or manipulation of the meter operating parameters. A meter that uses techniques to protect data will also be able to detect any unauthorised changes and register this condition as a potential tamper. To take advantage of these rich tamper detection features, the utility must ensure that installed meters support appropriate two-way communication.
Having two-way communication capability allows meters to communicate with some form of IT support system, which is essential in providing utilities with the necessary tamper and electricity theft alerts. In addition to alerts, the vast amount of valuable information acquired and stored in the meters can be harnessed.
Having the ability to communicate with the metering infrastructure enables consumption readings to be performed automatically, removing the need for manual readings to be conducted. The losses experienced through inaccurate readings taken by meter readers and the potential for bribing meter readers into providing false low consumption readings will be halted. Improving the accuracy of billing will increase overall customer satisfaction.
The installation of check or supervisory meters can be used to compare the difference between the sum of energy recorded by each consumer meter and the total energy measured by the check meter. This process is known as energy balancing. Discrepancies between the energy outflows and energy inflows indicate that some form of non-technical loss is present and in need of investigation.
Data analytics coupled with machine learning capability performed across multiple data sources with large datasets can provide insightful information with regard to potential fraudulent behaviours. In fact, data analytics becomes an important component of the IT support systems by providing utilities with a visual indication of what is happening in the field. The ability to monitor and analyse current and historical consumer purchase patterns can be used to look for any anomalies.
As the system learns and applies sophisticated algorithms to an ever-increasing amount of data, the ability to analyse and predict outcomes gets better. Using the power of machines to mine the vast amount of data, narratives can be generated that convert numbers into knowing.
Considering the full meter to cash cycle in relation to the information discussed, there are numerous ways in which electricity theft and meter tampering can occur. Following best practices and making use of relevant technology is the best way for utilities to protect their revenue and ensure future sustainability.
The problem and subsequent solutions cannot be managed in silos. To reduce non-technical losses and therefore increase revenue, a comprehensive understanding of the entire metering ecosystem is needed. Once the ecosystem is clearly mapped, effective measures can be identified and implemented to collect, prevent and detect such losses. ESI
About the company
Since the inception of the South African prepayment industry in the late 1980s, Conlog has been at the forefront of pioneering solutions that meet the needs of utilities worldwide. The combination of a superior product range, coupled with a desire to meet and exceed our customer needs, has resulted in our leadership position.