By Slawomir Klimowicz

Central and Eastern European (CEE) utilities cannot miss the chance! The chance, that is, that they have to implement mature and sophisticated smart metering systems. They can learn from Western European and American ‘pioneers’. And they can do all this at much lower cost.

The Smart Metering CEE Conference in Budapest in March was the first international event of its type organised in the region, attended by over 130 utility/smart metering experts. Most of the presentations referred to well known cases from Western Europe, Scandinavia and North America – the leaders in smart metering project implementations. Very few covered projects or initiatives in CEE countries.

This was not a surprise for the organizers or others involved in this very interesting event. Its purpose was to initiate discussion and share experiences as well as to engender confidence and pride in the decisions of those who have already started projects in CEE utilities (in Serbia, Poland and Russia).

But there are still no big roll-outs in the region. Why? Is it too early for this solution, or is there a lack of business justification, making it too costly? No, none of these: There is no reason why CEE utilities should be behind the West, and rather there are many reasons they could be ahead or at least keep the same pace.

Looking at smart metering solutions as a technology they can easily compare with mobile telephony. From country to country, there is no difference in terms of quality and the portfolio of services available from GSM operators. All are based on the same technology, with similar solutions delivered by a limited number of global vendors.

However the investment model differs. In the case of mobile telephony one may say: “Yes, it’s easy to make investment decisions when potential revenue growth is unlimited through new customers and new services, even if prices for single units of services delivered are constantly decreasing.” But utilities cannot sell more, and investments opening new revenue streams cannot be justified, at least not so easily. Utilities have other challenges: How to meet the increasing demand (1.5 to 3% annually) with ageing infrastructure, how to finance investments in new power plants and grids, how to protect revenue for services delivered, and how to meet EU requirements regarding market opening.

But what is needed to achieve these challenges, and can technology help? Yes, it can help a lot, especially in the CEE countries, where utility companies are investing in new billing, CRM and SCADA systems. They have a unique opportunity to incorporate smart metering solutions into newly designed business processes and applications that are being implemented. They can learn from the pioneers, and apply more mature and less expensive technology. Even the business drivers are easy to define: Non-technical energy losses are among those giving the biggest savings when at least partially eliminated. Western European companies which already have their business supporting applications in place are now facing significant and costly changes, because smart metering is not just about millions of remotely read and managed meters but also about the business software to make use of all the data.
 
We can see almost all the utilities in CEE “playing” with different pieces of smart metering solutions – meters, communication, and applications. Why shouldn’t they “play”? There is technology available from global and local vendors in terms of metering hardware, software and business applications.
 
Of course there is something that keeps CEE utilities busy and maybe this is the reason that smart metering is not top-listed on executives’ agendas. CEE utilities in many countries in the region are still state-owned companies awaiting privatization or acquisition, a competitive market does not exist, and huge budgets are spent on infrastructure projects required to avoid blackouts and to meet growing demand.