For city gas distribution (CGD) companies, efficiency in business operations is essential to remain profitable. However, the expanding gas pipeline network and customer base has placed a tremendous burden on the existing infrastructure. There have been increased instances of wrong meter readings (either by meter readers or due to faulty meters) and house lock cases being reported, leading to losses in revenue. Pipeline leakages and incorrect billing (due to a mismatch between gas supplied and consumed) are some of the other concerns that plague CGD operators. In this backdrop, gas utilities have started recognising the need for business process automation and the use of advanced technologies to bring down costs and increase efficiency.
Two major CGD operators – Mahanagar Gas Limited (MGL) and Indraprastha Gas Limited (IGL) – are taking initiatives to implement smart information technology (IT)-based solutions for automating business processes. Measures such as replacement of conventional analog meters with automated meter reading (AMR) systems based on ultra-low power technology, implementation of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems to monitor and control gas supply pressure, and computer-based software, SAP, for upgrading billing systems have been deployed. These initiatives have offered several benefits to both customers and operators. However, there are still apprehensions and aversion towards adopting these devices as there is lack of a single global standard for them and an absence of indigenous equipment. Currently, the majority of the equipment and devices deployed by CGD operators are imported from global players at very high prices. Besides, there is absence of interoperability undermining the effectiveness of the technology. These challenges are persistent and need to be resolved in a timely manner for wider adoption of smart technology solutions by both consumers and operators.
Digital and smart solutions
To reduce scope of errors resulting from manual operations, IGL and MGL have taken various initiatives to digitise and automate processes. For instance, IGL has deployed 5,000 prepaid smart gas meters in the Rewari geographical area (GA). These meters are equipped with ultra-low power wide area network (LoRaWAN) technology that provides end-to-end coverage in the city. Through these meters, readings are communicated via radio frequency protocols directly on to servers. This has helped IGL overcome some of the key limitations of locked premises, estimated/wrong billing, reversal of bills and tampering of meters. On the other hand, the facility of prepaid payments has enabled customers to monitor their gas use on a real-time basis against available credit, thus paving way for greater operational efficiency.
MGL too is planning to take up a pilot project for installation of 5,000 smart gas meters based on the LoRaWAN technology in Mumbai. For this, MGL had tied up with Tata Communications in April 2018. With the deployment of these meters, MGL will be able to remotely monitor meters and this will eliminate the need for field staff to visit customer premises for taking readings. An interactive online dashboard will also be provided along with the meters that will enable households and businesses to access data on their gas usage on a regular basis.
Another innovative solution introduced by both IGL and MGL is the AMR walk-by system. The system uses radio frequency to record meter readings as and when the meter reader walks by a designated route near the meter. The meter then communicates the reading wirelessly to the hand-held device carried by the meter reader. This device is further connected to a mobile phone through which the reading is transmitted to the central server. IGL has deployed these systems at field regulating stations to monitor the levels of gas supply and consumption by domestic, commercial and industrial customers.
IGL has deployed SCADA systems to monitor and control gas supply in various GAs. These smart systems have been introduced to automate sectionalising valves (SVs) in pipelines. At present, 56 SVs are integrated by SCADA systems and are being monitored and controlled from the integrated control centre at Kaka Nagar, New Delhi, where the hardware and software have been installed. This SCADA system offers features such as monitoring and controlling the on/off status of SVs, monitoring live pressure values and remote shut-off of SVs, monitoring process parameters of SV stations, and undertaking alarm and trend analysis.
Further, IGL has also automated compressed natural gas (CNG) dispensers using IT solutions such as SAP. The software provides a data analytics facility through which a monthly gas balance sheet can be generated. Also, transaction details, pressure at the dispenser end, and station-wise reports of gas sales can be monitored. CCTV cameras have been installed at all the CNG stations and are monitored from the central control room. For convenience of customers, online receipt printers have been installed at CNG stations.
Apart from this, both MGL and IGL have deployed GPS-enabled smartphones for meter readings. GPS-enabled meter readers can update data on gas consumption by taking a picture of the meter through smart mobile phones thereby capturing accurate readings. The meter reader feeds the data into the instrument and uploads it to the server for bill generation. Another control and monitoring solution, the geographic information system (GIS), has been used by both the CGD operators to map assets spread across a wide area. Through this solution, CDG operators can monitor the pipeline network and other assets on a real-time basis. This enables the operators to manage and monitor the condition of pipelines, meters, CNG stations and other remotely located assets. The information collected could help in improved analysis, network planning and decision-making.
Deployment of automated solutions and smart meters helps CGD operators in managing a large customer base. These solutions offer several benefits to both operators and customers. For instance, by increasing the frequency and accuracy of meter readings, non-functional meters can be tracked, thereby eliminating instances of missed billing and leading to better cash flow. Customer satisfaction is ensured through accurate recording of gas consumed and reconciliation of meter readings. Also, the data through sensors and SCADA systems can be used to understand peak hour consumption patterns based on which differential pricing during peak hours can be introduced. Further, the issue of peak load management is being dealt with by installation of smart meters. Accurate estimates of peak consumption based on consumption variability can thus be gauged.
With advancements in technology, CGD operators have the opportunity to improve their operational efficiencies. However, it is often the case that consumers are averse to retrofitting new devices or replacing existing ones. This undermines the effectiveness of technology. Also, challenges such as absence of global standards for devices, interoperability issues, complex statutory compliances and greater dependence on foreign solutions increases the cost of installation and limits widespread adoption. As a result, management of a large consumer base with conventional meters continues to be a tedious task for operators. Therefore, emphasis needs to laid on manufacturing of high quality smart meters and other smart devices that can easily replace conventional technology to ensure accurate measurement of gas consumed, which is then billed for revenue collection.
Going forward, with greater efforts towards the effective monitoring of all gas transportation and distribution networks, CGD operators will not only be able to improve their profitability but also enhance the safety and efficiency of business operations.
Based on presentations by Ramesh Narayanan, Assistant Vice President and Head, Department of Revenue and Receivable Management/Indirect Tax, MGL, and Ravi Kant Arya, Additional General Manager (Instrumentation & Automation), IGL, at a recent India Infrastructure conference