EDF R&D prepayment project – compteur maitrise energie
Motivated by the need to improve management of customers with financial problems, EDF is confronted with two challenges – helping the clients to manage their electricity consumption in the most efficient way; and preventing the risk of supply suspension for unpaid electricity bills.
As a socially responsible group, EDF has sought the best way to face these challenges. Approximately 15 years ago, EDF offered its customers a possible solution using prepayment technology. Today this technology has become obsolete, and in addition we also have to take customers’ raised expectations into account – so we decided to upgrade our offer with a brand new prepayment system.
Our R&D group made a significant investment in research and development in an effort to find the most adaptable technology to upgrade our actual system. An international benchmarking was necessary to evaluate the technologies offered in the global metering community, and to identify the one that best met our needs. Lots of technologies and their different characteristics were analysed, and after this international research we chose the keypad prepayment technology. Some advantages of this technology are:
- Flexible ways of buying electricity (by SMS, Internet, etc.)
- Simple keypad interface and user friendly display
- Simple utilisation
- STS standard.
South Africa has the biggest installed base of keypad prepayment meters in the world. This led us to visit some South African utilities, with the objective of evaluating the technology in the field and understanding the satisfaction level of their customers. We found that customers are satisfied with the prepayment keypad technology, and that the number of options available in the way they buy electricity is a very interesting advantage in its implementation. In many utilities in South Africa, clients are able to buy electricity using:
- Electricity scratch vouchers. These vouchers are offered with different values (30 Rands ($4.3), 50 Rands ($7.1), etc.) in some stores. After sending the secret code (under the scratch zone) by SMS (text message) to a utility server, the customer is sent the 20 digit code to be entered on the meter keypad.
- Automatic call centre
- Automatic vending machines
- In the utility offices.
The majority of meters in South Africa comply with the STS (standard transfer specification) protocol (recently published IEC 62055). The STS meters are offered by the suppliers in three forms:
- Plug-in base meters, installed inside the customers’ homes.
- Traditional base meters, also installed inside customers’ homes.
- Split meters, where the meters are usually installed in special boxes on poles located outdoors, and a display is installed inside the customer’s residence.
In all these cases, the customers have access to the display and keypad inside their residences. This offers them the opportunity to manage their credits and electricity consumption.
Keypad technology is also being implemented with success in several countries in South America, and some reports show that in general, the satisfaction level of the customers is very good. Some reasons for this high level of satisfaction are the user-friendly technology and the freedom of managing consumption, which often leads to a reduction in customers’ electricity bills.
Another factor that contributes to the success of this technology in South America is the ability to offer customers a way of managing the frequency of their credit buying themselves. Some people do not have 30 euros to pay their electricity bills at the end of the month – but they may be able to buy 1 euro’s worth of electricity each day.
This situation applies, for example, to seasonal professions such as some fishermen, who receive their pay every day. The ability to buy electricity without having to physically visit a vendor’s office, and the flexible ways of doing so, make purchases easier for customers. The same could be done with the customer’s debt, that could be divided in small amounts.
Buying electricity more often helps customers to reduce their electricity bills, once they know how much they are spending each day. The meter’s instantaneous energy consumption feature helps customers to understand how much any piece of equipment is consuming at a specific moment, and to identify those that consume more electricity.
These functionalities help customers to use their appliances in a more efficient way.
EDF intends to implement a pilot project with STS keypad meters to ensure they fulfil its customers’ needs. The choice is motivated by the main advantage of this technology – that it enables clients to buy electricity remotely, without the obligation of going to the utility agency to do so.
French laws require that some functional modifications have to be made to the prepayment system. These modifications will be implemented to guarantee customers a continued energy supply once their credits have been used up, when they are experiencing financial problems. Nowadays, the trend in many countries is to guarantee electricity supply, even when credits have expired. This secure credit must be efficiently applied to ensure that customers’ needs are met in the short term, but that the credit is not extended so long that they run up a debt that they will be unable to settle. The challenge is to find the optimal point to achieve this.
Nowadays STS meters include an alarm that is activated when the meter reaches a low level of credit. Once the credit has been used up, the customer is automatically disconnected. In our implementation we will include the low credit alarm, but instead of disconnecting the customer, we will be able to offer him three secure credit levels. It is not necessary to activate all three levels of secure credit; this is the process that will be followed:
- The first secure credit level occurs when the credit ends. A pre-defined secure credit is offered to customers, without power limitation.
- Once this credit ends, the customer’s power supply is limited to 3 kW and the next pre-defined secure credit is offered to him.
- When the previous credit ends, the customer’s power supply is limited to 1 kW, and the last pre-defined secure credit is offered to him.
Finally, when this credit has been consumed, the customer can be disconnected.
From the start of the process, the customer has the opportunity to contact the government assistance department to ask for help.
In our project the client will be able to buy electricity in four ways – by Internet, by electricity scratch vouchers (customers will be able to send their voucher’s secure code by SMS or by calling an operator), going to an EDF agency, and calling an operator. Energy vouchers could be offered to the government assistance department, which could offer them to customers who are experiencing financial difficulties.
Utilities can choose to limit a customer’s power to 1 kW or 3 kW without any disconnection, until his economic situation is resolved. This can also be done if there is a legal interdiction regarding disconnection (for example, established by the local government).
Additional functionalities will be implemented in the administration and vending software to achieve these three levels of credit, allowing us to provide a high level of service. Other changes will be made to customise the software to our particular environment, taking into account matters such as new taxes, fixed price management, debt management, and so on.
EDF plans to develop an open solution that could be used in different situations and by different utilities around the world. For example, it will not be necessary to activate all the three levels of secure credit; utilities could:
- Activate only a secure credit with 3 kW power limitation, followed by a direct customer disconnection.
- Activate a secure credit without any kind of power limitation, followed by a direct disconnection.
- Activate no secure credit at all; the customer is automatically disconnected when the credit ends.
Because of this flexibility, the system could be used by other utilities that decide to install keypad prepayment meters based on the STS protocol. All the proposed modifications can be done without any changes to the hardware – only the meter’s firmware and the administration software need to be changed. EDF will continue to share this development in the STS and IEC working groups and in its publications.