By Gabriele Riedmann de Trinidad, head of energy at T-Systems
The energy sector is facing dramatic change across the globe, from increased awareness of climate change, changing regulations, rising energy prices and cost pressures to rapidly increasing demand, the stability of the grid and even illegal energy usage and energy theft. Combined with the increasing digitisation of the world, which has led to a data explosion even within the energy sector, utilities providers are faced with numerous challenges. These include the need to handle vast amounts of data, the need to connect the unconnected to the grid, the need for cost-effective compliance with increasing regulatory requirements, and the key issue of security.
Smart metering and smart grid systems are an integral part of dealing with these challenges and meeting global energy demand. However, given the number of users who require energy services, the explosive growth of data and changing regulations and tariffs to name but a few, utilities providers need new, intelligent solutions. Flexible energy charging and metering solutions, which move the intelligence out of the meter itself and into a central IT service, deliver devices at a low cost to the user premises, while enabling the rapid fulfilment of new requirements and the fast tuning of business processes.
Prepaid charging solutions have already proven massively successful in the mobile telecoms space, enabling the rollout of communication services to millions of users across Africa and the world. This same model can easily be applied in the utilities space, with multiple benefits. These solutions can also be greatly beneficial when it comes to dealing with increased tariff and bonus complexity as a result of the need for efficient demand management and changing legal requirements.
However, these new challenges require more and more intelligence, and introducing additional logic and intelligence into the meters themselves increases cost and introduces dependencies and points of failure between meter and backend systems. To solve this challenge, a new approach to smart metering is needed which moves the intelligence from the hardware into central IT, enabling flexible energy charging, lowered cost per device and fast rollout of services into new areas.
Flexible energy charging in turn supports greater tariff flexibility, with support for both existing tariff structures as well as dynamic tariff structures related to consumption, season, time of usage, volume and so on. Flexible charging also assures revenue, since the prepaid model guarantees that all consumption is paid for upfront. Solutions are easy for customers to use, enabling automatic recharging of the meter after purchase without the user having to type in a voucher code. Centralised IT allows for additional interfaces, such as web and smartphone portals, for remote viewing, querying and recharging of accounts.
Customer care services can also be integrated into flexible charging solutions and smart meters. With the centralised smart metering interface, the utilities provider is able to view information such as meter diagnostics, account credit, current balance, account history, consumption information and history and more, allowing for comprehensive and easy to manage customer care.
Centralised smart meters and flexible charging enables a greater degree of client self service as well, further reducing the burden on the utilities provider. Remote recharging can be enabled, and third party recharging is also a possibility to enable muliptle individuals to contribute to a single account. Account queries can be made via the meter display or via portals on a variety of interfaces including SMS, email and web, and automated ‘credit low’ notifications can even be set to send to the display or via email or SMS to remind users to recharge. Multiple meters per client can be supported, as well as multiple accounts per client, simplifies administration for accounting purposes.
Centralised smart meters can even allow for post-paid customers to be handled in a similar fashion to pre-paid clients, with the same approach to customer care and client self administration. Hybrid models can be created with traditional post-paid accounts billed for a certain amount per month and then reverting to a top up model thereafter, and consumption limits applicable to minimise the risk to providers. Centralised intelligence even allows for remote circuit breaking in case of non-payment, and both pre and post-paid can be handled on the same systems with the same meters with a similar set of processes.
Using smart metering solutions with centralised IT intelligence enables regulatory compliance to regulated tariff models as well as business agility through the ability to incorporate flexible tariff offerings. Revenue assurance is enabled thanks to improved tracking of voucher and token sales, consumption and meter status, reducing loss of income through non-payment. These meters also provide a cost effective solution that enhances customer ease of use and satisfaction, providing benefits for all parties involved.
Given the numerous challenges facing the energy sector today and the growing demand for power across the globe, smart energy solutions are the only answer. By incorporating intelligent metering systems as part of a smart grid solution, utilities providers can position themselves to deliver on the needs of today and derive a host of benefits, including simplified rollout and easier billing processes. Using smart solutions, improved energy efficiency can also be encouraged, helping to cater to the needs of the future.