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Activating electrical prepayment systems in homes

20 Jul 2015  | Hamed Sanogo

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The prepay model has found support on both sides of the aisle, accepted equally by utilities and customers. The model is seen and considered as a true win-win scenario for all parties.

The prepay scheme allows utilities to easily reduce collection expenses; to reduce write-offs without the need to collect large deposits or disconnection fees; and to reduce bad debt by avoiding all the back-office and field activities associated with delinquent customers. They achieve a 100% collection rate immediately. Prepayment revenue arrives in advance of consumption, allowing utilities to invest and realise a predictable ROI. This model also eliminates the need to dispatch an employee to physically disconnect or reconnect service to a customer. With prepayment, there is no monthly billing statement to prepare. As a result, the utility reduces costly paperwork and the associated costs of postage, paper, printing, and handling.

Why do customers want to prepay? The short answer is that it provides the best means for easy monitoring of utility consumption. No more deposits, credit checks, due dates, or late fees! No more cancellation or reconnection fees, no billing surprises, and 24/7 payment options over the Internet with smartphones. The prepay model empowers customers who want to consume electricity wisely with the means to do so. It gives customers the opportunity to manage their bills and electricity usage with a greater awareness of their usage patterns. It helps to foster a better understanding of the greater good of energy/fuel conservation.

We have witnessed human behaviour change with new technology trends many times in the past. It is fair to assume that when customers can see their daily energy usage and costs on a home energy-monitoring device, they can be inspired to change their consumption patterns and habits.

The infrastructure for an energy prepay system
Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI)
The underlying technology of any prepaid utility program is smart meter technology, also known as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which enables real-time connectivity between customers and the utility company. At its core is a digital meter (commonly called a smart meter) with remote disconnect and reconnect capabilities.

This two-way communication network between the utility's back office and the deployed smart meter is how consumption data and remote disconnect/reconnect commands are transmitted in real time. Using an AMI, utilities can now collect meter readings from the smart meters at predefined intervals that can be as short as a few minutes or even less. This is also how the utility can charge tariffs or implement upgrades to the meter's software.

Another essential companion component of the AMI is a separate pluggable energy-monitoring display unit (HDU) located inside the customer's home.

Home display unit (HDU)
The customer's HDU (figure 2) is essentially a power-status monitoring device, the two-way communications portal between the customer and the utility. The HDU is NFC enabled. A customer can use their smartphone or tablet platform to buy additional energy credits via an established Wi-FiĀ® or cellular network, then transfer these credits from the smartphone onto the HDU by using the NFC interface in the smartphone.

Figure 2: Demo board for a NFC-based prepay home display unit (HDU). The HDU communicates with the utility's back office to update the remaining energy credits. The transaction uses powerline communication (PLC) across the home's existing electric wiring.

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