Central Europe – cost oriented or conservative?


The metering industry in central Europe is dominated by Germany, which in turn influences surrounding countries such as Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Benelux.

The German influence starts at the technical and standardisation levels, reaching back to the era of first electrification in the 19th century, and goes to recent business expansion of German multinational utilities in the area. The region has almost 100 million electrical customers, of which Germany has 43 million, Poland 25, Benelux 11, Austria 4, Hungary 7, Czech 6 and Slovenia 0.8 million. The deregulation of the energy market will be fully implemented in the year 2007. In recent years we have been faced with the internationalisation of the energy business, so there were investments by German E.ON and RWE in Austrian, Czech, Polish and Hungarian utilities, and by the Swedish company Vattenfall in Germany and Poland. The majority of the installed meters are still mechanical.

New installations are more than 80% mechanical, and in recent years only Dutch and Czech utilities have switched to electronic meters. What are the reasons for such a metering philosophy, considering the fact that in France, Italy and Scandinavia examples of implementation of new technologies and advanced AMR-systems can be found? Let us look at Germany, as the market characterising the whole area. Today the German energy system is still reliable – the technical level is still good, and there have been no regional black-outs. Two national energy giants, E.ON and RWE, are constantly restructuring and are not focused on metering. Most customers are serviced by medium-sized or even municipal utilities with traditional local presence.

During the deregulation in recent years fewer than 10% of residential customers changed supplier. The payment discipline is good; customers are willing to pay their bills on estimated consumption, with only one meter reading per year. Long term stability of the installed equipment and low cost of operation have high priority for utilities as meter owners. According to the latest research, the meter price has no significant influence on the cost of the billing process. New ideas are moving to simplification and reducing the cost of installation. A new plug-in electronic meter (eHZ) is pushed to become the new standard in Germany, but it still has no AMR functionality and is only a replacement for the mechanical meter. What could change the present behaviour of utilities?

The strongest driver could be the regulator’s decision to require monthly readings, as is already the fact in Scandinavia. Economic benefits by saving labour costs, and possible requests for frequent remote off-cycle readings, could also be important. On the other hand, investment in new technologies is not purely an economic question today. More and more the customer-oriented reasons appear relevant, like customer recognition that their utility is trying to do its job better and is changing to an up-to-date IT-oriented company. Higher value is given to serving the customer, so in the future customer satisfaction will be very important when metering decisions are made. If utilities as traditional metering operators do not realise it, somebody else will seize the opportunity.