The ‘smart meter’ solution to the problem of power theft

Currently, governments in Puducherry, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and New Delhi have initiated the process of installing smart meters.

October 01, 2013 12:26 pm | Updated June 02, 2016 04:20 pm IST



When it comes to power theft, India loses billions of rupees because of unbilled consumption and unlawful usage of electricity. If you add unpaid bills to this loss, then the electricity supply companies and boards’ losses are huge. Some estimates say that only half the revenue is realised. According to a World Bank report, there are two components to the losses: technical and non-technical.

Technical losses consist mainly of power supply dissipation because of faulty transmission and distribution lines, transformers and measurement systems.

There are other losses incurred as a result of actions that are outside the control of the power supply system comprising electricity theft, non-payment by customers, and errors in accounting and recordkeeping. Power theft losses, also referred to as commercial losses, are difficult to estimate but run into huge amounts. India and Brazil rank high on the list. Countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. also experience these losses but they are not as significant.

The Indian experience has also shown that electricity thieves come from across segments: domestic users, commercial and industrial establishments, rural areas and large cities. Most of the time, this theft happens through tapping of electricity from live wires, which also poses risks to people’s lives. The use of smart meters thus becomes extremely relevant in developing countries such as IndiaSo what is a smart meter? It is used to measure electricity , remotely switch the customer’s power supply off and/or individual appliances based on demand response. It can remotely control electricity consumption to maximise energy efficiency and load balancing.

Smart meters consist of two units: the metering device, which is in the custody of the distribution or utility company and a display unit that is at the consumer’s place. Typical smart meters being deployed in India are capable of one way communication only as those with enhanced features cost more and it is a sensitive subject for consumers in this market. For the distribution firms, the meters can detect unusually heavy demand, which may point to tapping of wires. This is particularly relevant in certain parts of India where petty theft of power is rampant and manual detection is difficult. Smart meters can also be used to shut off service to households and commercial establishments that don’t pay their bills. Initial indications from deployments globally indicate that putting in place monitoring systems such as smart meters prevents loss due to electricity theft. It can also lead to lower power consumption as consumers who were earlier using ‘free’ power reduce it and resort to using only as much as they can pay for legally. Also smart meters ease the burden on customers who regularly pay bills by billing them very accurately and often less.

In India, though power theft is one of the strongest incentives to install smart meters, there are other compelling factors such as the need to reduce technical power losses and peak power deficit and bringing in more efficient transmission of electricity to rewarding consumers who help in reducing peak power demand.

Currently, governments in Puducherry, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and New Delhi have initiated the process of installing smart meters.

( The author is Strategic Program Manager, IEEE Standards Association )

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