Common challenges a focus of Itron Utility Week

More than 1,000 people from around the world, including nearly 800 utility representatives, gathered in San Antonio, Texas starting Oct. 21 for Itron Utility Week 2012, to discuss a wide range of matters including smart meters and energy theft.

Those attending the 31st annual gathering, which had the theme “Putting Knowledge to Work,” met in more than 140 sessions to discuss, learn, share best practices and technology experiences, and to network. As with most similar gatherings, common themes emerged and often focused on common issues utilities face, whether that utility is in Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, or Zanesville, Ohio.

“As an industry, we are in the midst of tremendous change,” LeRoy Nosbaum, Itron’s president and CEO, told the opening session. “Increasing regulations, changing customer expectations and relations, increased resource demands and funding issues all are challenging and, to some degree, colliding with each other.”

Compliance and complaints are among the common issues not limited to a particular political jurisdiction, Nosbaum noted.

“In Europe, E-U mandates and government regulations are shaping smart metering across the continent. 20-20-20 [legislation that aims to ensure the E-U meets its climate and energy targets for 2020] is putting pressure on E-U countries to roll out smart meters,” Nosbaum continued, adding, “Just as in the U.S., there are consumer groups advocating against smart metering.”

Among the more vexing problems facing utilities outside of North America is the issue of “non-technical losses,” or theft.

“In Latin America, where non-technical losses account for serious energy and revenue loss, detecting diversion and tampering is critical,” Nosbaum said.

In Brazil, for example, non-technical losses account for about 10% of the electricity generated on average, though that figure can reach 40% to 50% in areas including the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Gadner Vieria, general manager of Energy for Latin America, told TransmissionHub.

“For every two kilowatts transmitted, utilities are only able to charge for one,” he said.

In an area where average residential energy use is 108 MWh per month, simply replacing meter readers will not result in sufficient savings to pay for smart meters. However, smart meters have the potential for fighting against non-technical losses because they can provide utilities data that can indicate where such diversion is taking place. That is a vital first step in stemming such losses, and an added value to the devices.

As a result of their range of value, the state utility has been investing in smart meters for at least five years. The utility also adapted the technology for the realities of Brazil, and have put the meters inside a metal box that is locked and mounted high on the utility pole so customers do not have easy access to bypass the meter or tamper with it, Vieria said.

The benefits of smart technology notwithstanding, Vieria said the root of the problem is both economic and societal.

“In Latin America, and particularly in Brazil, we have among the highest energy prices for consumers,” he said, suggesting at least a partial motivation for energy theft.

While non-technical losses at North American utilities is reported to be in the low single digits, other areas of the world have similar problems. One conference attendee from South Africa said non-technical losses in the slums around Cape Town and Johannesburg reach 50%, and that residents will bribe local utility workers to come out during their off hours and reconnect illegal lines that are discovered and disconnected by the utilities.

“You can’t fix things like that with smart meters alone,” Vieria said. “That’s a societal issue.”