Aqualectra Smart Meters and Smart Grid

The possibilities of Aqualectra's new Smart Meters

Last week local media reported that Aqualectra, Curaçao's power- and water provider, had started the roll out of their smart meters project. Over the course of the coming 3 years they intend to replace the old power- (~85,000) and water (~80,000) meters with these new smart meters. Aqualectra hasn't provided much information in the media about the implications of the new meters so we hope to give some background here about Smart Meters, AMI, Smart Grids, and what those fancy words mean for the end user.

We don't know much about metering or the engineering aspects of meters, but we do have experience with the current, old meters just by living on the island for so long. The current situation is that every building in Curaçao that's connected to the grid has at least 2 meters, one for power and one for water, and every month a person is supposed to come by to check those meters. The number that that person registers is the basis for your monthly invoice. If everything goes as it's supposed to go this is an easy process. However if the person checking those numbers makes a mistake you'll spend hours at Aqualectra trying to get them to change the numbers, or if you have an invisible leak somewhere you could suddenly be looking at a bill of thousands of guilders, and concepts like peak pricing, optimizing the country's energy supply to its actual (up-to-the-minute) demand, or 2-way communication are simply impossible with the old meters. 

So in 2015 Aqualectra sent out an RFP asking for companies with experience in AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) and Smart Grids. In 2018 they started the pilot project in one neighborhood, which was later rolled out to two more neighborhoods, and now they will roll out the entire project for real with an estimated date of completion in 2024/2025. 

What are smart meters?

The most obvious improvement of a smart meter over one of the old meters is that a smart meter can communicate with the utility company. This means that it can provide (near-)realtime information. This information is automatically attributed to the right account which has a set of metadata that can be queried. Just this one seemingly small functionality will allow the utility company to provide its customers with a way more accurate bill, it allows them to (graphically) see power outages much quicker, it will give them crucial insights in actual usage during the week/day/hour/minute, and it will -with the right algorithms- allow them to spot leaks and theft so much quicker and more accurately. Depending on the type of meter Aqualectra chose they will also come equipped with sensors that can report back on power- or water quality.

Revenue losses due to theft, leakages, and other forms of non-payment have been 11-13% for energy (NRE) and 24-27% for water (NRW) over the past 10 years. So these smart meters stand to provide a pretty decent return on investment just in combatting these losses. 

This (near-)realtime information will also allow Aqualectra to provide a service they were not able to provide before; peak pricing. A region's power grid needs to be able to handle the moments that demand peaks to make sure that we don't have constant blackouts when one person too many turns on their AC. So the grid's capacity needs to be able to sustain the peaks that happen during the day but what if you could reduce the peaks? That would mean that you could do with less capacity which is better for everyone's wallet as well as the environment. This is where peak pricing comes in; if you can measure usage by the minute, then you can charge people more for power during peak hours and less for off-peak hours which would lead to shallower peaks and better control over demand.

2-Way communication between the meter and the utility company will allow Aqualectra to remotely read out meters if needed and they will be able to connect or disconnect your power from the comfort of their office. This may not sound like a benefit but just remember that if you're shut off, you now have to go to the Aqualectra head office and spend several hours to pay your bill. Then when you're back home you have to wait another 5 hours for someone to come by to manually connect you again. That will hopefully be a thing of the past with smart meters.

And what about a Smart Grid?

In the past aqualectra has mentioned a smart grid several times but we haven't seen anything more specific than those mentions. These new smart meters are a prerequisite for any type of smart grid so they could be part of Aqualectra's road to a smart grid. 

As with any 'Smart' definition there are multiple definitions of what constitutes a smart grid, but the key elements in terms of functionality for all are that the grid needs at least a) 2-way communication between household and the utility provider, b) dynamic optimization of the elements powering- and using the grid, c) the ability to integrate renewable energy sources, and d) the ability for households to receive more detailed information and to use devices to play a part in optimising the system and their own use of resources. So, yes, there's definitely a chance there even though we doubt that they will appreciate it if the users start communicating with their smart meters as well. 

Aside from the fact that Aqualectra needs to upgrade their old systems and a smart grid would be the obvious next step, it would also make sense in the context of a changing world. Curaçao has a very stable grid compared to the region, we have a high surplus of available power if all systems are functional, and a very decent percentage of our power comes from renewable resources. However, our power needs are rising quickly and we're not producing enough power from renewable resources yet.

People need multiple tv's per household, phones need to be charged, we're -hopefully- moving towards more EV's on the street, the air condition needs to run, and everything needs to be on all the time because it needs to communicate, and all this power needs to come from somewhere. With a smart(er) grid you can utilize peak pricing to get people to charge their cars during low-price hours and you could even let EV's become smart batteries for the grid (Vehicle-2-Grid technology) if the grid and the car can communicate. If Aqualectra were to start using real-time peak pricing they would be able to dynamically change pricing based on actual (or recently forecasted) demand and if they can communicate with your AC or your pool pump during the night they could tell it to turn off during a peak and start again when the peak is over.

The AC manipulation example is very granular and not very likely in Curacao of course, but the fact of the matter is that Aqualectra needs to be smart about how it can make its power more affordable in the long run. We all want to use power all day, we don't know what to do with ourselves if the power's out (which is not a good thing in and of itself of course), but no one wants to pay even a nickel more for the luxury of power from the wall. Combatting revenue losses due to leakage and theft will be a big one of course, but more will be needed and hopefully a smart grid and some fancy algorithms will be able to help with this.