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Is Smart Metering smart enough for Africa?


Smart Metering (SM) systems can support various aspects of electricity distribution management and are generally recommended internationally as the way to enhance the services and financial viability of electricity utilities.

Kobus van den Berg, an Electrical Engineer at Aurecon, takes a different approach, saying it is important to understand the additional functionality of a SM system and see if it meets the specific requirements of Africa. 

“The extensive functionality of a Smart Metering system is not always fully appreciated,” he says. “However, collecting vast amounts of system data is in itself pointless: the value is in the management of the data. The solution lies in the integration with a highly effective Meter Data Management System (MDMS) and being able to demonstrate benefits for the consumer.”

The metering system

A typical SM system will have a smart meter at the customer’s premises with a load switch and in-house display. These devices communicate via various communications media and the data is transferred to a MDMS (Meter Data Management System) for storage and processing.

In the metering mode, the system provides the measurement and recording functions to enable effective measurement of consumption data for billing purposes. It records data at 30-minute intervals, which enables the utility to determine when and where energy has been used.

The meters can be switched between credit mode and pre-payment mode remotely. Credit tokens purchased at vending outlets or online via the internet or cell phone can be transferred to the meter directly or manually through the keypad on the Customer Interface Unit (CIU, display and keyboard installed in a customer’s residence). The meter also allows the implementation of complex tariffs. The use of TOU (Time of Use) tariffs allows the utility to offer new energy products to the customers, as well as use pricing signals to manipulate the consumption pattern of consumers to enhance energy efficiency.

The ‘smartness’ of the metering system comes from being flexible and multifunctional, able to enhance the management of distribution systems and improve energy efficiency.

Advantages of a Smart Metering system

Revenue management

The SM system can provide accurate meter readings timeous billing, pre-processed readings with VEE (validation, estimation and editing), and remote connect/disconnect.

One of the most important challenges municipalities face in South Africa is to read meters and produce accurate bills to enable customers to pay their dues. It is not always possible for meter readers to get access to a customer’s premises, resulting in ‘no reads’ or ‘estimated’ readings on a customer bill. In the case of SM, the consumption data will be validated and any inconsistencies corrected in the MDMS before it reaches the billing system, ensuring much higher quality billing. The VEE (Validation, Estimation and Editing) functions allow the utility to effectively manage consumption levels, missing readings due to meter failure and energy theft due to bypassing of meters.

The SM system supports functionalities such as remote connection/disconnection. If the customer does not pay their bill, a warning can be sent to the CIU. If no reaction from the customer occurs, the supply can be switched off remotely. As soon as payment takes place, the supply can be restored immediately. An especially important benefit is that accurate meter reading and billing will restore customer confidence in the utility and result in an improved payment performance.

Revenue protection (RP)

Most utilities employ RP officials or contract meter auditors to visit and inspect meter installations for safety and especially tampering issues. SM systems can be this ‘guard dog’ to monitor meters 24/7 and provide reading VEE to detect anomalies, tamper detection, alarm generation, energy balancing and loss detection, and non-payment/tamper disconnection.

While the visibility of meter officials motivates customers not to tamper with meters, the main challenge is the time and cost to maintain this visibility. Soon after a meter audit, customers tend to revert back to their old tampering habits or pay ‘contractors’ to ‘adjust’ their metering system! The SM system can provide a focused, enhanced and more cost-effective RP service for the utility.

Maintenance and planning

Data collected from the SM system can be used to identify maintenance actions as well as network extension and upgrade planning. Applications include distribution system loading and power flow, fault log system, power quality (PQ) information, system loss measurement, parameter trending facilities, maintenance alert, job scheduling, and meter error detection.

Meter failures can be detected immediately and the necessary maintenance and repair teams activated. Customer service will improve due to prompt reaction to failures in the distribution network. Capital and maintenance budgets can now be based on operational information from the SM systems rather than ad hoc measurements in the network.

Keeping customers informed

Customers can either accept and use the SM facilities or view it as a method to ‘spy’ on them and force them to pay for services. Whatever the case may be, the customer should be persuaded and shown that the SM provides essential and useful information, such as consumption feedback, cost and tariff information, outage warnings, bill payment information, remote disconnection/reconnection, and pre-payment options.

For successful implementation of SM, it must be to the advantage of the customer in terms of energy management, as well as the improvement of services. The SM system opens a new communication channel to customers to inform them of the actions and intentions of the utility without reverting to call centres and the media.

Demand control

Many African countries are in the predicament that the demand for electricity is at times very close to or exceeds the supply capability. The SM system provides methods of managing the demand for electricity on the consumer side of the supply network direct control of devices such as geysers, air conditioners and pool pumps, load limiting during high demand/supply shortage crisis situations, and indirect load and energy efficiency control via TOU (Time of Use) tariff structures.

The first method enables the utility to switch off the supply to non-critical appliances such as air conditioners, pool pumps and hot water geysers, as well as other residential loads or, motivate customers to disconnect loads themselves. The second method is to use TOU tariff structures to reflect the actual cost of energy at a particular moment and also send a strong price signal to the customer. This information enables the customer to reschedule certain loads and save electricity cost, as well as improve energy efficiency.


SM has a place in African utilities to meet the needs and particular characteristics of Africa’s electricity consumers. SM is only really smart if it is carefully integrated into the distribution system with a specialised MDMS, and the system used to improve business processes, utility operations and particularly, customer services.


This article is based on the paper titled ‘When is Smart Metering really smart?’ presented at the 63rd AMEU Convention, 15-17 October, Ekurhuleni, by its author: Kobus van den Berg (PrEng), BEng (Elec). MMedSc, MBA.  Electrical Engineer, Aurecon

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