The Sunday Mail
Plans by Zesa to install smart meters to curb circumvention of the electricity meter billing system have hit a snag amid indications a deal between the power utility and firms identified to supply the gadgets could collapse.
The Sunday Mail understands that some senior and influential Zesa engineers argue that it is irrational for the power utility — saddled with a US$450 million debt and failing to raise money to upgrade power generation plants —to opt for smart meters that cost three times as much as pre-paid meters.
It costs Zesa about US$105 to install a Cash Power pre-paid meter and almost US$350 for a smart meter.
The pre-paid metering project would cost an estimated US$90 million to connect 800 000 customers; while smart metering will gobble close to US$350 million.
Zesa wants to install 800 000 meters by year-end and has so far connected about 375 000 on the pre-paid system.
However, due to circumvention of pre-paid meters, which is prejudicing the power utility of a reported US$10 million monthly, Energy and Power Development Ministry officials had proposed “to go smart”.
But the plans hang in the balance.
Sources claim senior officials from both in the Energy Ministry and Zesa are trying to line their pockets from the project.
“Some engineers are of the view that the smart meters are expensive and the current pre-paid meters only need a software upgrade to enable Zesa to monitor customer electricity buying trends and usage,” said one Zesa engineer. “Those pushing for smart meters are suspected to be linked to some of the private companies. As it stands there is a stalemate and we might say good-bye to the smart meter idea.” Unlike pre-paid meters, smart meters are easier to monitor against tampering as they communicate regularly with main servers.
Setting up the monitoring system alone requires nearly US$13 million.
A snap survey in Harare showed Zesa was installing pre-paid meters with a massive programme currently underway of initial connections to cluster houses constructed by land developers and housing co-operatives.
Zesa spokesperson Mr Fullard Gwasira said no concrete agreement had been reached with stakeholders involved in the smart metering project.
“The smart metering project is still under discussion by relevant stakeholders and its implementation is subject to that consultative process that involves the shareholder,” he said.
“Until such time that the matter has been finalised, we are not at liberty to discuss this matter.” On tampering with pre-paid meters, Mr Gwasira down-played the scale of vandalism saying: “Internal investigations have shown that the levels of pilferage are not as high as speculated and a few culprits have been arrested, due processes of the law are underway and owing to its sub-judice nature, we are not at liberty to comment any further.”
In its initial stages, the power utility installed pre-paid meters in premises, but as a result of tampering, the gadgets are now being fixed on electricity poles.
However, critics say the measure could still face circumvention as Zesa employees are allegedly aiding customers to cheat the system.
Smart meters allow power utilities to bill consumers at a price that better reflects the actual cost of producing electricity.
They also provide precise details of consumption patterns allowing users to better manage their electricity use.
In Southern Africa, Botswana and South Africa use smart meters with the latter only installing the gadgets in selected low-income residential areas.
Smart metering is common in Europe.