Apr 15, 2020
Utilities are the only businesses in the world in which the cashboxes of the business, i.e. electricity meters, are in the premises of the consumers. In the wake of the lockdown to contain COVID-19, utilities across the nation have been unable to access their own cash boxes. But for Gram Power’s clients, who use our smart meters and online power distribution management technology, it’s been business as usual.
When we started working on smart meters in 2012, little did we know that the central government would mandate its adoption nationwide and that this technology would become even more relevant in the new world we will live in.
On March 24, 2020, the government of India took an unprecedented step to fight the spread of COVID-19. The nation went into a 21-day lockdown thus shutting its USD 2.9T economy. As of April 14, 2020, the lockdown has been further extended until May 3, 2020.
The novel virus, which has forced people to stay indoors, is also pressurising businesses to think of new ways to function. Utilities too, aren’t being spared.
At a time when utilities are already reeling in huge losses, India’s daily power consumption has suffered a 26% fall in less than 10 days since 18 March, 2020, thus significantly hurting utility revenues. Moreover, the lockdown has impacted their ability to recover their dues, which will have adverse spillover effects on payments to generators and the entire supply chain working for utilities. Hence, marking the beginning of a vicious cycle of a liquidity crunch.
Moreover, in most utilities only about 5% of monthly demand is actually bought or sold through the power exchange. The balance is purchased through long term power purchase agreements. Hence, whether there is demand or not, utilities HAVE to pay.
Further, utilities are taking steps to protect their workers. For their staff maintaining infrastructure, working in customer service centres or visiting consumers in their homes is simply not possible. In addition, consumers will be cautious about visiting utility centres to make payments or raise complaints about their electricity connections.
Such a crisis furthers the case for rapid adoption and more sophisticated use of smart metering technology. Here’s how Gram Power helped its clients continue business as usual:
Metering Reading & Billing
More than 99% of electricity bills in India are manually generated — someone walks into your home or workplace, and records and sends the meter reading to the utility. Post that someone delivers the physical bill to you. In most utilities that Gram Power has interacted with, more than 80% of bill payments are received in cash. This is not sustainable in a post COVID world.
To deal with the situation, state regulatory bodies have issued utilities directives to bill consumers as per their average billing. Hence, you might receive a full bill for your factory or showroom without even running it during the lockdown.
We, on the other hand, billed 100% of our smart meter consumers on actuals for our utility clients, without any human intervention, by remotely and autonomously reading all our meters. Consumers of our prepaid meters, through our mobile application, could pay their bills digitally and monitor their consumption regularly to check whether they were charged accurately. They could also verify that they didn’t leave any loads on in their temporarily shut workplaces.
COVID-19 mandates minimal physical interaction between customers and the utility. We’re all privy to lines at payment centers, long wait times for a new electricity connection, and several rounds of a customer care center to get our complaints addressed.
In a utility digitized by Gram Power’s smart meters and grid management platform, everything from reporting a fault, to enquiring about blackouts, to even applying for a new connection is done using a mobile app that is intelligently linked with your smart meter. This improves customer experience and makes utilities’ operations significantly more efficient.
A utility’s responses are generally reactive — when a fault happens or a customer complains, their team rushes to resolve it. This leads to blackouts, revenue losses, and creates congregations of people in sub stations complaining and waiting for the power to get back up. Moreover, in their constant effort to reduce power theft, utilities send vigilance teams to likely areas where theft is happening instead of areas where they know theft is happening.
With smart meters, almost 100% of field operations can get digitized. Before a transformer is likely to blow up, the operations staff are automatically informed. If there is a fault, smart meters help trace the source and the root cause of the problem, thereby enabling rapid restoration of power. In a utility digitized with smart meters, you would rarely have a blackout and even if it happened, your Gram Power app would tell you why it happened and by when it will get restored. As for curtailing theft, our patented software provides vigilance teams the location and quantum of power theft, thereby reducing unnecessary movement and ensuring rapid response time.
Most of you must have participated in our Prime Minister’s call to light a lamp for 9 minutes while turning off the lights at 9pm on April 5, 2020. Power demand during this time dropped by 32GW, almost equal to India’s total solar generation capacity. To manage this sudden drop, our power sector engineers were on their toes choreographing the shut down of generators and then quickly ramping them back up at the end of the 9 minute period. If they had not done this, the grid could have collapsed.
With smart meters, this could’ve been managed with the press of a button and without shutting down any generators. Smart meters come with an internal load control switch, i.e. you can use a smart meter to remotely turn on or off the load it’s connected to. If we had smart meters on 32GW worth of agricultural pumps or on the batteries of the lakhs of telecom towers that India has, we could simply schedule them to turn on during this time such that the net demand for electricity would not have dropped. This real time response to the changing power supply situation on the grid is called demand response. With renewables becoming a larger percentage of India’s generation portfolio, demand response enabled through smart meters will be an inevitable requirement to avoid massive blackouts.
These are just some of the ways in which smart meters will transform the way utilities conduct business in a post COVID-19 world. For Gram Power, pushing this technology throughout India, is more than just for technology advancement of the sector. Our calculations show that utilities in India spend USD 16B per year on avoidable energy losses, equivalent to almost 43% of our annual healthcare spending. Smart meters can eliminate more than 70% of these losses and support additional healthcare spending without further hurting our already strained fiscal deficits.