While there is a host of energy supply and distribution challenges that smart meters promise to help with, stopping people from using ants to steal electricity may not be one of the first to spring to mind. But in the grand larcenous tradition of using magnets behind meters to stop them from turning, strategically deployed ants is just one of the alleged ways people around the world sabotage meters in order to get access to free electricity, according to John Cronin, executive chairman of smart metering and lighting provider Cyan Technology. People pour sugar over the meter, and some of the sugar granules go into the meter, he says. It fuses onto the wires and ants go in and eat through the wires because the sugar’s on there and disconnect the meter. There are all sorts of clever ways of doing it.
In this and many other areas, smart communications providers such as Cyan can help energy suppliers gain the information and control they need to better manage the grid. By connecting the meter to a monitored call centre, electricity suppliers can receive an immediate notification that there’s something wrong with the meter, giving them the power to disconnect it or send somebody out to investigate. With India’s energy sector losing around 32bn a year via uncollected electricity revenue almost a quarter of the country’s electricity supply was thought to have been lost through either technical problems or meter tampering in 2012 it’s an issue that has serious repercussions for national energy infrastructure. If they don’t collect that cash in, they can’t then build out additional capacity for electricity for their consumers, because they’re just losing that much money, says Cronin.
Cyan’s smart metering platform aims to address this challenge by connecting home meters such as electricity and water meters through a narrow band radio to a nearby data concentrator unit, connected to between 50 and 200 homes, which then relay the information over the internet to call centres where information can be monitored remotely using software developed by Cyan. It’s connecting the unconnected, if you like, says Cronin. Providers can therefore better control who is on the grid, as well as monitor when and where usage occurs and thus use demand response systems to ensure capacity is optimised, anticipating where demand will be and transferring capacity to the necessary substations a crucial move since many developing world cities are today overwhelmed by the use of polluting diesel backup generators during frequent power outages.
What we offer is the end to end solution, from the consumer to the call centre back to the utility they can actually see really what’s happening with that consumer, and adding it all up and saying right these consumers need their electricity at this time, says Cronin. Meanwhile, the analytics provided by Cyan can help companies offer other advantages to customers, such as incentives for reduce electricity use at certain times of day and prepayment which allows people to better control their household budget and how they use electricity. A spin-out from Cambridge consultants in 2002, the firm originally focused on micro-controllers such as those used in remote controls but around eight years ago reinvented itself as an internet of things specialist. With the vast potential of its technology to help balance out capacity, Cyan now mainly works in countries where blackouts are still a big problem.
The firm puts high importance on having people close to its customers, and is increasing its workforce In India from 15 to 20 people this year. They are local, know the people on the ground, have continuity of contact, and actually build up the relationships right from the sales through to technical support through to implantation and back up etc, says Cronin. Meanwhile, Cyan has deployed around 40,000 units in China along with its smart lighting distribution partner Aska, while a new partnership with Chinese smart card firm Newcapec is now set to begin promoting the smart metering side of the business. The company also has operations in South Africa and Brazil and is in the process of expanding into Ghana. Earlier this month it even won a landmark 67,000 contract to fit 2,000 smart meters on traffic cameras in Iran – making it among the first orders secured by a UK business after international sanctions were lifted in mid-January.