Introducing smart meters in South African utilities


By Edison Makwarela

Utilities all over the world are today either considering or have already implemented smart meters. Following these trends consideration must be given to the introduction of smart meters in South African utilities.

The general approach in Europe and America when implementing smart meters is that utilities form long term partnerships with suppliers who in most cases provide a complete solution that includes meters and applicable management systems. In most cases, no standard communication protocols are implemented; protocols tend to be proprietary and belong to suppliers providing meters.

In South Africa, the norm is to follow specific standards and protocols. The advantage of insisting on standard protocols is that meters from different suppliers can be installed in one area without the need to change Meter Data Management systems. At this stage there is no preferred communication protocol standard that utilities are following, particularly when credit meters are deployed in residential areas. It would be good for the South African electricity supply industry to develop standards for smart meters before these meters are introduced in large scale in the country.

South African utilities will also have to map out requirements for smart meters suitable for local conditions. Care must be taken not to over-specify requirements as this could lead to an escalation of smart meter costs. The more unique the requirements are, the more expensive the product becomes.

It is important also to carefully decide on what should be standardised and what should remain proprietary. Some meter functionality will always remain proprietary to give meter suppliers competitive advantages. What is important to standardise is the communication language between the meters and the different systems.

One challenging fact is the low consumption of electrical energy by some segments of current prepayment residential customers in South Africa. This makes it difficult to justify smart metering projects. In South Africa, the Electrification Programme must go ahead to meet the universal access vision of the government. The question that most utilities would like answered is how do utilities implement smart meters and still meet the requirements of the Electrification Programme?

On the other hand, as time goes on, customers will start demanding the implementation of these meters once they realise their existence and the associated benefits and advantages. It is therefore crucial for South African utilities to start considering these advanced meters.

In South Africa also, it is important while embarking on the journey to implement smart meters to realise the fact that it will not be cost effective to immediately provide every customer with smart meters. We therefore have to continue innovating on the best possible cost effective solutions to communicate with current installed meters. Like any other technology, the price of smart meters will go down when all utilities in the world start using these meters in full force and as such, one can justify installing these meters in rural areas then.