The electricity industry around the world is slowly moving to a digitalised system - a drive borne out of man’s curiosity to probe digital truth.
What we have now is data that’s easier to interpret and understand. With only a couple of clicks, smart meters give electricity operators a bird’s eye view of their operational processes.
It also gives users access to figures that empower them with the knowledge to make efficient choices. This includes decisions such as the ability to pay only for the energy used, or automatically know the equivalent currency of electricity consumption.
In the UK, Électricité de France (EDF) is improving customer experience and cutting losses with its at-home display smart meter that shows customer energy use almost in real-time.
This means users get to see how much energy they are using in pounds and pence, ultimately knocking off estimated billing which is one of Nigeria’s biggest problems.
Nigeria’s utility woes
Picturing these possibilities in Nigeria may be hard especially when one remembers our current analogue meters.
We also have a mode of billing that is rarely understood by anyone outside the purview of electricity workers. Still, meter boxes with codes that people cannot discern are no longer able to handle the increasing demand, and technology required for efficiency.
Our dilapidated system coupled with the sector structure cannot stand a chance at welcoming data evolution except some radical changes are made.
This is not to say smart metering does not exist in Nigeria, however, only 1.7 million people in Africa's largest country have smart meters in their homes.
With that low number, there are no limits to the damages that can be caused by an estimated billing for the rest of the population. You can almost count on at least one electricity complaint flooding social media every other day. A quick search on twitter with the words “Ikeja Electric” will show several complaints on over estimated billing or metering problems.
More than half of customer complaints on electricity last year were billing and metering related.
If our electricity distribution companies and the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) had facilities like the EDF, they could provide information based on analytical reviews of power consumption patterns for all customers and in real-time.
Such information would empower them to balance out the recurrent disparity between the transmission and distribution companies. These confusions are oftentimes caused by the constant shortage of funds between the quantity of electricity transmitted and the level of funds remitted by the distribution sector. Tracing how funds got lost is, however, a sure thing with smart metering.
How small and big data are harvested and used
Companies like EDF collect data using a range of methods. It can be through domestic meter readings; which can be referred to as- small data.
It may also be an accumulation of readings over a long haul from various substations- Big data.
What such readings help to do is gather the information that is either structured or not. A combination of these produces units of digital information that ranges from power generation to consumption patterns, using household and transmission lines.
An analysis of the figures from payments and usage patterns obtained from meters can also help operators plan power distribution between peak and off-peak periods. Information collected from these devices carries all the gold needed for utility companies like Ikeja Electric, Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC), etc to form decisions if fully dispersed.
The idea is already being used in the country. Renewable energy systems were the first to incorporate this technology into their operational mix. Some solar systems in Nigeria also have these intelligent meters providing hourly real-time data of power generation across all energy supply channels and power consumption patterns.
Leveraging cloud computing and machine learning in utilities
Predictive analysis plays a leading part in enabling the vision of the electricity industry.
Already, countries with this technology have used data to get a sense of COVID- 19's impact. They have done this by comparing electricity demand from months before the current crisis, visualising the moment it began to have a detrimental effect on economies.
This plays a role in policymaking to plan for future occurrences of natural disasters, secure operational efficiencies and appropriately shift power to critical centres.
Also, cases like the 2016, ₦238 billion electricity theft in the Port Harcourt disco, reported to have happened through illegal connections and fraudulent billings, could have been avoided with smart grid security solutions.
This can be illustrated with General Electric’s tamper detection product for utility providers to monitor energy flows, enabling them to react immediately to distrustful processes.
The application is synced into their operational processes to track user behaviour, detect foreign predators and suggest mitigating actions.
Armed with data assets and sensors, electricity service companies can access the health of operational resources and make proactive investments on how to balance efficiency, profitability and safety. Intelligent sensors detect unusual patterns in the system and relay back to the operator which could be compared with data trends to highlight a discrepancy.
This process is helpful in curbing pipeline explosions before they ensue. The ability to model end - to - end visibility, manage and control these new resources will be imperative to advance distribution management.
Although data adds a lot of importance to the dynamics of electricity generation, distribution and customer experience, it comes with its defect.
For instance, big data brings along with it an increased volume of information which might be difficult to analyse and curate over time. Poor data literacy might be another limiting challenge where workers find it difficult adapting to new changes.
It also doesn’t come cheaply. A 2016 cost estimate for installing smart meters in the UK, ended at £11 billion. This translated to about £374 per household. As at last year, the figure was projected to have risen by at least a half-billion pounds more. Although pricey for the Nigerian government, the private sector can work on finding a viable solution.
Still, it will be worth the shot. Taking a leap of faith to trust data would cause a ripple effect on increased transparency, consumer engagement and cost reduction - major challenges the country currently grapples to solve.
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