Lesotho's smart meter pilot
Lesotho found its existing telecoms network struggled with the volume of data from the smart prepaid meters trial

In 2011 Lesotho Electricity Company (LEC), the state utility for the independent kingdom of Lesotho within South Africa, installed 50 prepayment smart meters in middle and high income areas.

The objective of the pilot was to test demand-side management and ways to improve demand-side control. From April 2015, LEC will spend its budget of ZAR 5 million (US$ 472,690) on a wider scale meter roll out.

We asked Mohlomi Seitlheko, metering manager at LEC, to share his 5 key learnings from the pilot:

1. Data volume

We thought Lesotho’s existing telecoms network could handle the volume of data going to and from the meters but they weren’t up to scratch. Roaming was too expensive so we negotiated a private access point name (APN) with Vodacom Lesotho.

The next issue we had though was Vodacom cutting back data during periods of high voice call traffic. This meant there was a long delay between customers buying power and the credits showing up on their meter.

In the end we have changed to a standard transfer specification (STS) using a token system for buying power so the meters are semi-smart.

2. Manage change

Bringing in a new system means change internally and we found operations staff particularly needed to get used to working in a different way.

3. Load shedding

As LEC is reliant on importing power from South Africa and Mozambique, which are experiencing their own power shortages, we are able to send a signal to limit customer loads from an average of 60MW down to 20MW, which is enough to keep the lights and stove on.

4. Customer engagement

We had two issues that annoyed customers taking part in the pilot scheme. The first was a limited number of outlets to buy power and the second was the lapse between buying power and it appearing on the meter. By swapping to an STS system, we have resolved both issues.

On the positive side, customers welcomed being able to see a monetary value on the meter screen instead of units.

5. Due diligence

A pilot meter project requires time and money so make sure you learn from the best before you start. Speak to suppliers who have been in the industry for a long time and visit utilities with smart meter systems that have also been in place for a long time.

Identify what problems those utilities experienced and then don’t repeat the same mistakes – make sure you start a step ahead.

Seithlheko will be speaking on the smart meter pilot at African Utility Week on 13-14 May in Cape Town.