A stronger focus on the customer and loss reduction are the two most important issues utilities across the Central American and Caribbean region should be focusing on in the years ahead, delegates to Metering Central America and Caribbean agreed.

And modern metering technologies, such as automatic meter reading (AMR), power line carrier (PLC) and prepayment, will enable them to do this – and thus, urged Felipe Corriols, coordinator of the metering department of the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE), in a discussion on the future of metering in the region, while such high investment projects may be difficult to justify, particularly for the public utilities, it is essential that companies move to introducing these technologies. 

“We cannot leave metering on its own and it needs to be seen as part of the bigger utility picture,” said Corriols, commenting that such new metering technologies have demonstrated that losses could be reduced to less than 10 percent from the more than 20 percent that has been typical across the Central American and Caribbean region for the past many years. “The technological developments imply that a cultural change in the way we do things is necessary,” said Corriols. However, he cautioned that any technology should not be installed for its own sake but based on its projected level of return.

The 1st Metering Central America and Caribbean conference took place in Bogotá, Colombia from 21-23 February and attracted some 240 participants from countries across the region, as well as from elsewhere in Latin America and further afield. Under the title ‘Strategies for revenue enhancement and energy management’, participants discussed new prepayment and AMR projects being implemented across the region, as well as new billing, revenue protection and customer management strategies.

Alfonso Valverde, head of the energy administration section of Compañía Nacional de Fuerza y Luz (CNFL), also from Costa Rica, supported Corriols’ comments, saying that the costs of advanced meter technology are becoming more accessible to utilities. “Often we can be too cautious A with new technologies, and we must be aware of the rate of return,” said Valverde.

As an example he cited the advantages of being able to do remote connect/disconnects: “With increasing vehicle jams we cannot get out as quickly as we used to, and one also forgets that in the case of short disconnects, which are generally those people who simply have forgotten to pay their bill until it is a day or so overdue, that two visits are involved, one to do the disconnection and the second to do the reconnection.” Ceferino Rodrigues, director of the metering laboratory of the Empresa de Acueducto y Alcantarilado de Bogotá (EAAB), commented that metering is also very important for water and is in fact crucial for its long term sustainability.

While developments have led to improvements in the accuracy of water meters the errors are still up to 5% and there must be an awareness of this as well as the consumption profiles of users, given the consequent narrow margin for profitability when acquiring such technologies. Samuel Lee, director general – Latin America of Actaris, described metering as “an efficient way to exert control over a resource” and said that efficient metering would lead to the rational use of the resource. And, said Lee, given the increasing importance of the meter there needs to be more integration and coordination between all the players – regulators, utilities, associations and customers.“That will get us to the beginning of the future.”

Prepayment

The event was opened by Colombia’s minister of mines and energy, Hernán Martínez Torres, who commented on the importance of prepayment in Colombia and its potential in providing both a reasonable return for the utility providers as well as greater and better access to services for the customer. Several prepayment pilot projects are currently underway in the country in Bogotá, Medellín and on the Atlantic coast, and the minister said that these are expected to be expanded in the coming months.

Delegates were able to view the former of these pilots, in which three different technologies are under test by Bogotá utility Codensa in three different socio-economic areas of the capital city – a smart card activated system being piloted with 100 customers, a PLC-based system with 200 customers, and a PIN activated system with 140 customers. The technologies are under a 12-month pilot, after which a decision will be taken on the future direction of the project. According to a preliminary analysis 59% of the customers believe that prepayment has reduced their payment on electricity and 81% wish to continue to have a prepayment meter in the future.

For its part Codensa believes that the prepayment concept has strengthened its relationship with its customers. A prepayment project is also underway at the Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM). A 12-month pilot was run in 2005-6 with 94 points, which elicited a 93% satisfaction level, and now a large scale rollout of prepayment to some 32,000 customers is under way, with the first customer expected to be connected in July. The project will expand the offering to a broader socio-economic range and EPM’s goal is the development of a culture of rational energy use that does not impact on comfort or quality of life.

Independent consultant Sergio Agoff, who led the development of Edenor’s prepayment project, reported an interesting prepayment pilot project for customers with limited resources at two sites (Bahia Blanca and Ensenada) in Argentina’s Province of Buenos Aires. While normally the full amount of electricity that has been purchased is available immediately for use, in this new concept the electricity is rationed to a fixed amount per specified unit of time, for example per hour or per day – the aim being to encourage the rational use of electricity and ensure that the customer always has electricity available.

One of the earliest prepay projects in the region was on the island of Curaçao and Anthon Casperson, acting president and CEO of Aqualectra, presented a report on the project, now in its second phase, 10 years on. Its motivation at the time was the increase in non-payment and theft of electricity and since it was initiated more than 16,000 prepayment meters have been installed, which is about 26% of Aqualectra’s customer base. Demand for the system, which also has contributed to a positive image for the utility, is still increasing. Aqualectra still has to instal prepayment metering for water.

AMR/AMI

While prepayment is one of the main areas of metering focus in South America currently, with projects in almost every country in the region, in Central America and the Caribbean islands there is a growing interest in AMR. Costa Rica is one of the countries in which AMR has been implemented and one of the projects, an 850 point system on the Atlantic coastal zone, was described by Jorge Trigueros, Project Manager at the Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE). Besides being in a very remote area – access is only by boat and on foot – the area is extremely wet, from both high year-round rainfall and high humidity, presenting a challenge when installing metering.

Among the more unusual contents found in meters have been frogs and a rat. ICE also introduced innovations to limit the moisture problems, including the sealing of sockets with PVC stoppers and expandable polyurethane foam. Another country which has adopted AMR is the Dominican Republic, and Rafael Cueto Stéfani, telecommunications and systems director of Edesur, presented his utility’s experience, which was initiated to address the high losses – in 2006 approaching 36%.

In the period 2005-6 four pilots were carried out to 3,400 customers using different technologies – two with RF and two with PLC – resulting in the selection of the TWACS by DCSI system for large scale rollout, which started in January 2007. With the focus initially on the C&I customers with demand greater than 10 kVA, objectives include the ‘recovery’ of 11 GWh of energy in the first year and cost savings of more than US$5 million. Honduras is one of the few countries in the region that has gone for AMI so far and Jacobo da Costa Gómez, regional manager Northwestern Region of the Empresa Nacional de Energia Electrica (ENEE), presented his utility’s installation of the EnergyAxis system. A key problem facing ENEE was a high level of electricity theft, with losses around 19 percent at a cost of US$5.3 million per month.

The project, in the city of San Pedro Sula, which accounts for approximately 60% of the electricity sold by ENEE and 70% of its revenue, involves the deployment of more than 35,000 meters – 25,005 for residential customers, 7,200 meters for C&I customers, and 3,163 in substations and distribution transformers – with communication via RF and GSM/GPRS. The project is still in the early stages of implementation, with only a few thousand meters installed to date and the intention is to introduce hourly tariffs for residential customers. It also includes a prepayment option, which is envisaged to be in operation before the year end.

Revenue protection and billing

Revenue protection is one of the major concerns for utilities across Central America, and Latin America in general, and among activities to combat this utilities are also reviewing their billing systems. In 1996 Empresa Electrica de Guatemala (EEGSA) introduced a hand-held meter reading project to reduce manual meter reads and improve the accuracy and time of bills. Hector Alvarado, EEGSA’s metering manager, reviewed this project, which has led to more than 82% of bills now being presented on-site and a significant reduction in the number of disputed bills. EEGSA, the major supplier of energy in Guatemala, has some 800,000 customers and on 60 meter reading routes approximately 38,000 readings are done daily.

Hugo Hernán, project director with Codensa, described the development of a novel business intelligence data analysis system, named arist@. This was motivated principally by the need to better manage theft and nonpayment of electricity and the system interfaces to the billing, management, loss control and adjustment functions. Outcomes have included the improved detection of electricity theft and the identification of areas for monitoring for electricity theft, and in turn the more efficient management and reduction in the operational costs of personnel involved in these activities Metering Central America and Caribbean was organised by Smart Energy International, with Codensa as the host utility.

In his opening address Minister Martínez commented that from the Colombian government’s perspective the event was important in confirming the confidence of foreign investors in Colombia and in the steps taken by the government in the last few years to improve the delivery of public services. He also said his belief was that such events would contribute to bringing in the developments that will translate into technologies that reflect the realities for all Latin Americans