Africa’s energy poverty reinforces economic poverty, and has resulted in Africa’s poorest people paying among the world’s highest prices for energy. On average, Africans pay $0.13/kWh while the rest of the world enjoy a typical rate of $0,04/kWh to $0,08/kWh. The utilities of Africa are therefore challenged in implementing an operating model that provides reliable and cost-effective energy to the consumer, while adding value to the utility.
Digitalisation ambitions has impacted the way utilities operate globally. Smart metering is a specific area where these impacts are the very prominent and has the potential of assisting with the energy access challenges. As the operating requirements of utilities evolved, so too has the feature set, form factor and connectivity of meters. Over the last 30 years, we have seen the gradual evolution of meters, from basic electromechanical devices, to state-of-the-art electronic devices, with extensive feature sets. As we progress into the fourth industrial revolution, we will see the next evolution of smart meters, with integrated cloud connectivity and supporting advanced methods of us consumer interaction, augmented by analytics and artificial intelligence, with the potential of addressing the evolving needs of utilities in Africa.
The decision on meter specification have always remained a challenge for utilities, due to the diverse needs of its consumers and the needs of the utility itself. This challenge is compounded by the typical installation lifespan expectancy of twenty years, and the vast range of technologies offered by meter manufacturers. The consumer of the future will demand detailed information on their energy use, in their drive to reduce costs and utilise energy responsibly, as well as a convenient method to interact with their services. The utility of the future will see a pivot in focus from providing basic access to energy, to demand response, loss reduction, availability of energy and integration of small-scale energy generation systems. The informed decision on meter specification is therefore critical.
In assisting utilities with their metering decision, the Association of Power Utilities Africa (APUA), which is the Union of Producers, Transporters and Distributors of Electric Power in Africa with representation in 46 countries, have begun the process of developing an Africa-focused meter standard, for adoption by all its members within Africa. The development of this specification has been mandated to the African Electrotechnical Standardisation Commission (AFSEC), who have in turn created a technical committee (ATC13), consisting of utilities, a manufacturers interest group, and subject matter experts. The technical committee have actively been working on this standard since 2021, with a goal of publishing this African Standard as “AS70000-1: Smart Metering Systems – General Requirements” in July 2023. The standard will cover metering applications up to 50kVA. After publication, this standard will become the baseline smart metering system specification for APUA member countries and other African countries. Consequently, this standards will lay the foundation for technical harmonisation for utility metering, and will enable larger initiatives such as the Africa Single Electricity Market and the Continental Power Systems Master Plan.
A few of the key outcomes of this standard is to ensure that meters specified will address current and future needs of utilities. The standard is tailored for the needs of African utilities, and covers the topics of meter connectivity, meter feature set, meter performance, security (physical and cyber) and interoperability.
In development of AS70000-1, ATC13 focused on the adoption and utilisation of mature, globally proven technologies and the elimination of country-specific requirements and standards. To address the requirement of interoperability, the specification adopts the global DLMS/COSEM protocol, with the incorporation of IDIS companion specification. Adopting the IDIS Companion Specification ensures the highest levels of interoperability, reducing risk, and the negates the need to carry out repeated testing. The newest revision of IDIS also incorporates advances tariff features and demand management.
One of the most important architectural decisions that needs to be made by a utility is in the area of meter connectivity. Whilst historic implementations of smart meters utilise a data concentrator or network gateway architecture to enable remote functionality of radio frequency (RF) and power line carrier (PLC) enabled meters, the AS70000-1 makes provision for a direct connected architecture, whereby meters connect directly to the head-end via the cellular network. The adoption of direct cellular connected meters were previously limited to substation or zonal monitoring, primarily due to the associated upfront, data costs and cellular network coverage – the widespread adoption of cellular technologies has resulted in lower upfront costs, minimal data costs and extensive network coverage. Newly developed cellular technologies, such as NB-IoT and LTE-M, are fit-for-purpose technologies designed for IoT devices such as meters, and offer better coverage with lower power consumption. The removal of the data concentrator or network gateway also improves overall system reliability whilst simplifying the architecture, and is therefore the preferred architecture.
The lifetime expectancy of meters also create a challenge – the billing models, feature set and configuration may evolve or vary over time, as the needs of consumers and utilities change – the inclusion of a remote software upgrade mechanism therefore becomes mandatory to ensure the longevity of the asset. Concerns relating to ensuring meter accuracy after software updates is addressed by the implementation of legal separation – a software mechanism that ensure that the accuracy of a meter is unaffected. African Standard AS70000-1 specifies the inclusion of remote firmware updates with legal separation as a mandatory requirement.
Cyberattacks and data privacy are of key concern of utilities in their smart meter programs. Implementing effective cybersecurity measures is critical, as hackers become more innovative and increased computational capability becomes more accessible. In response, the standard has adopted a multi-level security architecture, resulting in protection at multiple layers – these include the adoption of security suite 1 for the DLMS/COSEM protocol, and the adoption of Standard Transfer Specification, Edition 2 (STS-2).
Conlog, Africa’s leading developer and manufacturer of smart metering solutions, is a key contributor to the development of AS70000-1. Conlog is an active member of APUA and a member of the manufacturers interest group of ATC13. Conlog has utilised their vast experience in the African continent to contribute to the standard, ensuring relevance in addressing the current and future needs of utilities and consumers.