Controversy continues over the introduction of smart meters, which the government and public utility, the Meghalaya Energy Corporation Ltd (MeECL), have claimed as the cure to the present power woes in the State.
Three previous directors of MeECL had disagreed with the tendering process for smart meters, the installation of which began recently in Shillong. One of them was transferred and another resigned, it is alleged.
More pertinent is the question of whether these ‘smart’ meters will be able to work in parts of the State where internet connectivity ranges from poor to non-existent.
Smart meters need a two-way communication and link to a central system. For accuracy in billing it will have to be permanently connected to an internet network, say experts.
For now the government is focusing on replacing the old meters with smart ones only in Shillong and its outskirts, where internet connectivity is comparatively better.
However, it has been pointed out that the number of customers who default on their electricity bills is relatively low in the urban areas, whereas high default took place in rural areas where there is lack of internet connectivity.
Government statistics show that, though all districts are covered, 2,389 villages (36.92 per cent) of the 6,471 in Meghalaya do not have mobile connectivity.
Experts thus questioned Power Minister James Sangma’s confidence in the smart meters being the ‘silver bullet’ that will solve power distribution issues, an issue that needs to be tackled to improve the health of the perennially sick MeECL, by replacing all old meters with the smart variety.
These new meters are meant to provide consumers with the ability to keep track of their energy consumption and reduce the problem of under and overcharging by giving accurate readings all the time.
According to the plan, consumers will also be able to manage everything online once the meter is installed and save the MeECL money by not requiring staff to physically visit each and every meter to take a reading.
Knowledgeable sources, however, told Highland Post that, without a stable internet connection, the meters will not be able to function as hoped.
Within Shillong’s urban areas, the smart meters could work, but the idea of spending crores of rupees to replace the old meters just to make billing more efficient is redundant as there are only 10 per cent of losses in this area.
“This area requires not this expensive and unstable system but a bit of tightening up on the existing infrastructure and human resources,” said one of the persons spoken to.
Contrastingly, in areas like Garo Hills, where losses due to billing problems are between 70 and 80 per cent, whether these smart meters will work in a region that faces poor internet connectivity is something to worry about. It is feared that the government will be spending crores of rupees to buy and install the smart meters that will end up not working due to this lack of connectivity.
Instead, those in the know feel it is much better to keep the purchase in abeyance and conduct system tests in a few neighbourhoods before taking the plunge. The State government can ill afford to saddle the utility with even more debt when the MeECL is gasping for survival, said sources.
It would be far more prudent to study the problems of smart meters faced in advanced countries and other states that have installed them, such as Uttar Pradesh, so that Meghalaya will be ready with solutions, said a source.
Many experts have pointed out that the smart meters appear to be just another project that will enrich the manufacturers and their friends but leave the consumers and distribution companies on which they depend for electricity mired in greater problems.