By Rosila Binti Senan

Electronic meters, the main component of smart metering have been installed in TNB since 1985 and by 2002 TNB had totally stopped the purchase of electromechanical meters. The capability of the electronic meters providing information on events and consumption pattern paved the way for Large Power Customers(LPC) AMR project in 2005. Currently with AMR, 45,000 LPC installed with electronic meters and GSM modems are monitored centrally daily and have their bills posted monthly relieving the burden of manual meter reading. Trials are underway to explore customers’ acceptance on paperless billing by posting their bills in TNB’s web page as well as auto email to ensure faster delivery of bills. Proposals are also in place to extend the half hourly metering information to the customer via AMR’s web page as an initial start to smart metering of LPCs.

The AMR project has been an eye-opener on the need to ensure the overseas AMR software provider is very well aware of the local conditions before the start of the project and not make assumptions based on its own country. The importance of having technical competent personnel based locally is vital to ensure project continuity and not having to wait for technical assistance from abroad.

The fact that the AMR project comprises of many parties of different business interest and different technical competencies requires close coordination from all the different parties namely: 

  • Metering system and site communication equipment 
  • Communication infrastructure 
  • AMR software and hardware supplier 
  • TNB’s own ICT infrastructure involving network and billing system

It can be deduced that IT & communication infrastructure are the main deciding factor in the success of AMR project. In our experience, the leap from GSM calling of 3000 customers in 2006 to 45,000 customers simultaneously in 2008 had caused an unexpected high number of failures in both calls to customers and transaction processing of the software. After a long painstaking process of fact-finding due to the simultaneous happening of failures and multiple root causes, AMR processes had to be reviewed in order to handle limitations of all parties concerned as well as upgrading of Telco’s communication equipment, AMR software and hardware. If transparency and commitment of the involved parties was achieved earlier, the project recovery time could have been faster.

Back in 2006, at the start of AMR project, GSM was the preferred choice seen to be able to cover the scattered LPCs all over Malaysia as GPRS was still not widely used. Now, the expectation is to migrate all 45,000 customers by 2013 and new installations to GPRS. Telcos are saying that the technical support for GSM from 2013 will be on best effort basis only. Learning from previous experience, public communication services shall now be multi sourced depending on their areas of strength and reliability of continous signal. Guaranteed capability of Telco’s GPRS infrastructure handling large amounts of data simultaneously must be tested repeatedly before the migration exercise to avoid the same problems from happening again.

Another important factor to consider in project implementation is the automated update of customer metering system data in both AMR software and billing system to ensure automated matching and integrity. Manual updating of the customer metering system have caused errors in data mismatch causing failures of AMR as well as billing output and these errors will continue to happen from time to time reducing success rate. Thus the automation process should encompass the whole aspect of metering process on customer and meter maintenance; not just cover meter reading and billing of customer only, even though it would increase the project cost.

Even though there are shortcomings, AMR has positively contributed to reducing manhour required in producing the bills. Similarly, the bill delivery process has been automated to be sent through the postal service further reducing TNB’s manhours. Improving further still, auto email and autofax of bills are currently on trial to gauge customer’s acceptance. Once customers are receptive of email communications, there are proposals of setting up basic information kits raising customers awareness of TNB’s latest initiative and how to monitor their energy consumption. Permanent help desks need to be set up to handle email queries either from TNB or customers once notifications of sudden changes in energy consumption are send out to customers, mainly to help them be aware of possible faulty equipment for sudden increase of consumption. Full details of energy profiles will be made available through TNB website with daily updates which is the current practice.

Manually input data in the metering and billing system are matched with AMR software to enable success in calling the meters for billing thus disallowing reading and billing discrepancies. Metering faults or irregularities will be detected from the raised alarms retrieved in the AMR software highlighting immediate action is required to rectify the fault. In addition, energy profiles in AMR are further processed and analysed to identify possible dishonest attempts to steal electricity from the identified reduced consumption data flagged in AMR reports. Hitherto, the detection of theft cases have doubled with increased accuracy and realization of this alarming trend in the increase of theft cases has warranted for a special department to be set up to focus on recovering loss of revenue.

Expansion: Smart Metering or Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI)?

Realistically, much needs to be done with the present communication and IT infrastructure before TNB can really venture into smart electricity metering for all types of customers, especially residential customers. AMI seem to be even more daunting where interconnection is required between electricity, water and gas meters as well as home appliances with real time information to monitor and control energy consumption.

However, it is seen that some of the features of smart metering do complement TNB’s business needs such as getting accurate registration of energy usage per customer as well as per area for theft cases and remote control of the meter namely disconnection and reconnection of non paying customers. In view of the challenge of handling the voluminous metering data and securing data as well as commands remotely administered, many factors need to be addressed first. The roadmap shall define the main criteria namely meter features, type of metering data required, communication and gateway choice, and data processing concept. Below are some of the main factors that need to be evaluated and decided upon: 

  • Extent of meter feature and metering data required 
    • Currently, only 3 phase electronic meters record half hourly kW and kVar and all meters have no control features. 
    • In view of fast-changing communication technology, there is the risk of modems being obsolete faster than meters and are purposely built with shorter life. Hence, the preference for interoperability of external modems with multi types of meters
  • Hybrid communication of multi sourced private and public technology 
    • The choice of private communication will correlate to the need of having proprietary communication protocol and different AMR software. What is the level of integration required if there is a need to have different private communication? 
    • The transmission of large metering data at the collector then have to use public communication. Can the public Telco guarantee and secure uninterruptible large data transmission at one go? 
  • Type of gateway required 
    • How much customer interaction is required? 
    • Speed of data and response time expected 
  • Data processing concept 
    • Centralised or regional? 
    • Network capacity required? 
    • Integrity and Security

As seen above, a lot of questions need to be answered for the roadmap to be firmed up for smart metering implementation. The specification of smart metering will depend on the requirement of the smart grid to be formulated for TNB.