Metamorphosis in metering

The application of electronics to the process of electricity metrology has removed the restriction of only being able to measure kWh. Now all electrical variables can be measured with greatly improved accuracy. This in itself is a significant change, particularly for the utility's commercial and operational engineers. As in all rapid technological changes, however, management has been slow to exploit the benefits the new technology affords.

Making full use of processing power

In a well designed metering system, only 30% of the processing power is taken up by the metrology measurements. In the next generation of processors this figure will fall to only 10%. This would be of only minor economic value if examined in isolation, but in public electricity supply the synergy between electronic metrology and communications opens up new ways of managing the process of electricity supply ways which are more in tune with the social, political and economic changes taking place in society today. At this point it is useful to stand back and review the changes which the new technology has brought about, and the possible changes society will demand in the near future. Historically the electricity meter displayed a meaningless number, which was recorded manually by a meter reader and conveyed to the financial department of the utility. Here an equally meaningless number (the previous reading) was subtracted from it to arrive at the kWhs the customer had used over the billing period. It should be noted that the numbers as such conveyed little useful information on the characteristics or the demand patterns of the customers. Additionally, data security issues did not arise, as those involved in the process the meter reader and the data processor were both employees of the utility. This whole process, which was both labour and capital intensive, was inherently a highly centralised management system, intent only on maintaining the status quo between the monopoly utility and the captive customer.

A new and demanding society

The last two decades have witnessed a steady change to a more affluent, demanding and vocal society. As the energies supplied by utilities become more essential to society's new lifestyle, the utilities were subject to more scrutiny and political change. It is significant that the conflux of electronic metrology and communications technologies has also become technically and economically viable during this period. In the new environment the electrical state of the customer's supply can easily be measured. Communications technology can convey this information to the utility to manage the transportation of electrical energy more efficiently, reliably and safely. The same communications allow variable data to be conveyed to commercial operation. When this facility is combined with the fact that more than 70% of the electronic processing capability is not utilised at present, it is feasible to consider decentralising the work which is currently undertaken in the central billing computers into each customer terminal. Similarly if each customer's demand is known and integrated over the whole system at, say, ten minute intervals, both economic and technical improvements in energy generation and dispatch become feasible. There are numerous other managerial, economic and technical benefits which can be listed. When these technological changes are viewed against a background of major political, economic and social change such as privatisation of energy utilities, the introduction of competition, the fact that modern customers require less government paternalism and more information to manage their own affairs the inevitable result will be a significant change both in the way utilities are managed and the way they manage the customer/utility interface. Several changes will come about to meet the new, but not yet formulated, customer requirements. Customers will increasingly wish to exploit the new competitive environment. Initially the numbers asking for competitive quotations will be small, but as the benefits of more focused pricing systems become more generally appreciated, they will increase rapidly.

Adding value

At the same time the competing utilities, to retain their market share, will think up new `value added' products and services which have been made possible by the new terminal. An example of such an added value service will be to provide the customer with an easily accessed display of his energy usage, in a form he understands money backed up by the display, on demand, of a significant amount of supporting information. The discerning reader will have deduced that society and the energy utilities are entering a whole new era of customer/utility relationships, which will induce significant managerial restructuring within those industries and a whole new vocabulary. Out is the proud, dedicated, paternalistic utility manager who, within the technology available to him, genuinely tried to provide the quiescent customer with a safe, economic and reliable service. In is the demanding fickle customer being wooed by aggressive commercially minded utility managers continuously trying to devise new added value features to their offerings. The provision of these services will be driven largely by economic and financial criteria, such as each utility's market share and share value.

In this new environment the word `meter' does not describe the functioning of the electronic terminal installed at the customer/utility interface. This presents designers and manufacturers with a problem. Buyers still express their requirements by talking about meters, but go on to specify requirements which are far beyond the metrological requirements. So the question arises: As less than 10% of its functioning is devoted to electrical measurement, and even less to displaying these measurements to the customer, what features do we develop which will be acceptable to a large part of the market to utilise the remaining 90%? Of equal importance is the question: What is the duration of the learning curve which utility executives have to climb before they absorb and apply the concept of a multi-utility, multi-function terminal? It is interesting to note that the utilities' executives have not crossed the intellectual and managerial bridge to serving the rapidly evolving new environment. Most of the thinking about the potential of new non-metrological functioning made possible by the new terminals is being undertaken by the financial, service and communication industries.

The problem of data security

No innovation is wholly devoid of new problems. Once the synergy of electronics and communications is exploited, several new requirements arise which will have considerable impact on the design of both the management system and the equipment installed. The first is data security and the ease with which hacking can take place on existing systems. Any 11 year old computer addict would be delighted to demonstrate! Alongside this is the fact that economic forces will require each customer's continuously varying consumption profile to be available to various participants in the supply chain. The passage of such information through a communications system with adequate security will be unacceptable to customers, as their personal and company activities can easily be deduced. A further outcome of the new competitive environment is that the conveyance of data and information could well be conducted by any service provider, which further complicates the management of the utility supply contracts.

Finally, information is a powerful tool and therefore has economic value. The question which must be answered is who owns the information created in the terminal the person creating it (the customer) the person providing the unit which processes the measurements into useful data (the energy supplier) or the conveyor of that data? I believe it is the customer, but the question has not been answered in law. The reader will discern that whole books could be written on the many facets of the metamorphosis which currently affects the utility industries not only electricity, but gas and water as well. It is hoped this short article will stimulate discussion on the subject.