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Power Sector | When it comes to smart electricity meters, PGCIL must use latest technology

As India grows, so does its power needs, and astute usage of power is crucial for India’s development. The decision to settle for outdated technology will hamper India’s growth in the years to come

September 01, 2022 / 03:17 PM IST
Representative image.

Representative image.

As India executes the world’s largest electricity smart-metering programme, aimed at reducing distribution losses, the industry is looking at new and cost-effective solutions. However, in what can be only seen as bureaucratic lethargy (even worse, disregard), news reports suggest of how State-run Power Grid Corporation of India (PGCIL) has floated a smart-metering tender specifying that it needs to be in (now outdated) 2G and RF mesh tech. This stipulation is shocking for anyone in the know of things and have been following the technological developments in this sector. The PGCIL is showing Luddite traits through such a tender, and if it goes through, the decision has the potential to drag and deny the true speed of India’s power sector reforms.

Unlike the regular electromechanical meter, the state-of-the-art smart meter sends the data to the power distributor faster in real-time, which makes it easier for the supplier to manage the power supply, and, thereby, avoid leakages in the system. Fourth generation telecom technology has made such monitoring possible; and with 5G soon to be rolled out across India, this will improve.

The idea of smart grid, of which a smart meter is a sub-set, is to increase the efficiency of power usage by the introduction of bi-directional flow of information from utilities to consumers, and vice-versa. This can be possible by the introduction of ‘Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)’. The information about electrical consumption of a consumer is recorded in a timely manner, and this data is aggregated and analysed by ‘smart meters’ installed at consumer premises. The analysed data is communicated to utilities using the AMI. The AMI includes the advanced communication system, including home area networks (HAN), neighbourhood area networks (NAN), and wide area networks (WAN).

It is not as if it is only the power distributor’s hands that are strengthened. It is a two-way street. The consumers’ hands too are strengthened with the distributor alerting to wastage at the consumer end, which they can plug instantly — say, for example, a television drawing power though not in use; the same is the case with an air-conditioner that may not be in use, but power is consumed if the power switch of the appliance is not switched off.

Such alerts galvanise somnolent consumers into action, resulting in prevention of guzzling and heightened bills. Consumers can also monitor their consumption on a daily basis and accordingly initiate suitable measures as against the present norm of waking up with a shudder when the bill lands in our letterbox/inboxes. When metering becomes fairer and advanced like higher peak-time rates as in Malaysia, the utility of real time information would be even more — shifting peak loads to leaner times of the day wherever possible to avoid peak time tariffs. A smart meter also enables switching from conventional power to renewable energy (like solar) thanks to the two-way communication which is its centrepiece.

The PGCIL’s weak alibi is that the latest technology is as yet unproven. Really? One doesn’t have to go very far. The Tata Power Delhi Distribution, which supplies electricity in the north and north-west Delhi, last year chose the latest platform and connectivity technology — Narrow Band Internet of Things (NBIoT). This technology can work with 4G and 5G networks.

Surprisingly, the PGCIL has tweaked the technology requirement from the latest to the dated in the tender inviting bids for setting up 10 million smart meters just days before the bid closed on August 30.

The atavistic instinct for hurtling to obsolete technology is a throwback to State-run BSNL remaining a 2G service provider for long when its fleet-footed private sector competitors were progressing from generation to generation. The PGCIL cannot pivot, and smugly counter saying unlike in the telecom sector, in the power sector competing for custom is not yet on.

At any rate, it would be wasteful and cynical to embrace a dated technology, even if it is cheaper only to report sub-optimal results at the end of the day, when enthusiastic adoption of the state-of-the art tech can prevent the downside of such short-sighted courses of action. We are in a fortunate position to have requisite technology that can make a huge difference to the power sector.

As India grows so does its power needs, and astute usage of power is crucial for India’s development. Seen from such a prism, the decision to make good with outdated technology will hamper India’s growth in the years to come. Therefore, it would be foolish to embrace junked technology.

S Murlidharan is a chartered accountant and columnist. Views are personal.
first published: Sep 1, 2022 03:04 pm