Not very smart

2010-03-09 00:00

THE installation of the controversial Smart Meter in Msunduzi is very problematic. This project was allegedly sneaked in by the municipal manager and the chief financial officer without the mayor or the Exco’s knowledge. This is worrying, for R240 million was set aside for the system. Apart from questioning how it was procured, there was absolutely no meeting with ratepayers. With our municipality’s finances already in dire straits and the chief financial officer allegedly preventing staff from divulging information to the provincial task team, one needs to ask where the R240 million will come from and how it was budgeted for in the first instance. Will ratepayers be forced to pay for the system like we currently do for the circuit breakers? Secondly, why was the municipality in such a hurry to latch onto Unique Mbane’s product without having looked at other Smart Meters from other suppliers?

The Standard Transfer Specific Association (STS) of South Africa has a purpose to advance the technology with regards to Smart Meters and to promote the globalisation and international acceptance of a successful and uniform standardised system, given that this system will be required by new markets as is currently predicted by Eskom. One of the roles of the STS is to ensure those Smart Meters are uniform and easily acceptable when secured for use by municipalities and utilities. Now, one would expect all suppliers of Smart Meters, like Mbane, to be a member of the STS Association. However, Msunduzi Municipality’s service provider, Mbane, is currently suspended by the STS. The project manager of this Smart Meter in our city is no other than the chief financial officer. He needs to explain to ratepayers why the company that is being paid R240 million is suspended by the STS and why the Smart Meter is managed by him and what technical expertise he possesses about Smart Meters.

In terms of national standardisation, the NRS049 Smart Meter specification has not been finalised. Once this specification is set, then only will STS Smart Meter manufacturers produce meters to this specification. It should also be noted here that the Third World Meter Design Congress (the STS Association is a participant) is scheduled to take place in San Diego this week. This could have a major impact on the design and functioning of Smart Meters. The metering industry is facing monumental changes — the emergence of the Smart grid, new communications technologies, new standards, the rise of Smart metering, increased meter data, energy efficiency, end-customer issues, new component solutions and globalisation — are all shaping the way meter systems are designed, styled, packaged and manufactured. This international congress will focus on how meter design engineers, system architects, research engineers and production professionals can make and design the meter smarter, faster, cheaper and more energy efficient. With participation from over 20 countries, this must-attend conference will give attendees the tools to optimise every element of the meter design process to suit local needs and environments.

The NRS049 Smart Meter specification is crucially important to ratepayers’ pockets, as once they are met, manufacturers will then produce Smart Meters and this will allow utilities the opportunity to go out and tender, and if not happy with one supplier, have the option to change suppliers. Is Msunduzi in a position to change suppliers or have we been hurriedly tied down to Mbane by two high-ranking officials? It is obvious that both these officials are unfamiliar with the positive side of stiff competition, which, importantly, requires suppliers to perform well, price the product well, offer ongoing service, offer latest technologies and provide excellent backup. In the case of Msunduzi, we have been tied down to one supplier who has no competition when it comes to support for his system and supplying more meters. Mbane could name any price and Msunduzi would be forced to pay. Currently, STS-compliant conventional and prepaid meters have dropped to the low prices that they sell at because of competition. Would we have paid R240 million if we had purchased Smart Meters in 2010 from a service provider that is NRSO49 and STS compliant?

While the government is committed to the Smart Meter roll-outs, electricity distributors, and this being municipalities in the main, have raised concerns about the available funds to implement these initiatives due to high equipment costs and supporting communication infrastructure that will be needed to operate the Smart grid. Intriguingly, Msunduzi has committed R240 million to bring in the system, while other municipalities not under financial scrutiny or on the verge of bankruptcy remain cautious. Perhaps our municipal manager and the finance chief can share their wisdom with ratepayers as to why we are ahead of financially sound municipalities? Further, the change from traditional metering to Smart metering has a huge effect on the service provider’s technical resources and our traditional meter readers fall nowhere near meeting any criteria to be redeployed as part of the employee complement needed in terms of technically skilled personnel.

It would therefore only be fair or acceptable for utilities or service providers to introduce Smart Meters after consulting consumers. Why were we never consulted and why did the two most senior city officials secretly commit the city to paying R240 million? It is more than evident that this system was introduced to the city under very questionable circumstances. There is only one solution to this: our municipal manager and chief financial officer together with all others implicated in this contract must be suspended immediately. The continuation of the pilot project must be halted and a full-scale inquiry carried out by the auditor general and the provincial task team into Contract PU79 of 07/08. Ratepayers have every right to participate in the financial affairs of the city. This is the opportunity for ratepayers to mobilise and speak with one voice regardless of political affiliation. We are fed up with the municipal manager being on unending leave, while the chief financial officer is always evasive.

A call is made to all ratepayers’ associations and interested citizens to express their grievances to the National Energy Regulator (Nersa) at P. O. Box 4033, Arcadia, Pretoria, 0007, or by e-mailing Nersa at complaints@ner­sa.org.z­­a A flood of complaints will secure intervention by Nersa.

 

• Babs Sithapersad is the president of the Msunduzi Rates Forum, Pietermaritzburg.

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