The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: Smart Meters Can Help Zesa

About half of Zimbabwe's 800 000 electricity consumers are now on pre-paid meters, a major achievement and one that has done much to ensure that people who use electricity pay for it, and by seeing daily consumption very easily can take steps to use their electricity sensibly, with little waste.

But extending the pre-paid systems to the other half has hit a number of problems.

One is a dispute between Zesa and the State Procurement Board. Zesa wants contracts varied so that the two most efficient installation companies, who have finished their contracts, can carry on while a company that has fallen behind will have its contract limited.

This sort of thing is allowed by the SPB, but there are a number of steps that Zesa has to take to get the permission. We suspect that what we are seeing is the normal clash between operational types, who like things done efficiently without "a whole lot of paperwork" and financial rule-keepers who want their rules followed.

The conflict is not insurmountable, so long as everyone sees the two points. Operational units must understand that these sort of rules are needed, otherwise they themselves might in the end face law suits and have their motives questioned. Rule-keepers must be ready to list the required rules and be ready to explain to all affected just what is required. Sometimes it is easier to have a meeting where the operational desire is stated and the rule-keepers spell out the steps that must be followed.

The private sector has exactly the same clashes, with operations needing to follow clear rules sets by internal and external auditors. It is not purely a bureaucracy problem.

The solution in all cases is clear and rapid communication of needs and requirements. Operational units gain by being forced to be very precise in what they need and why, and rule-keepers, by explaining what they need, gain by having the correct data and precise recommendations to adjudicate.

A second and more serious problem is a dispute over just what sort of systems are required, with groups wanting the simple and cheap pre-paid meters continuing to be installed and others wanting a more complex and significantly more expensive smart metering system.

It appears that around 1 percent of those with pre-paid meters are cheating and having their meters circumvented.

We think before a final decision is taken that Zesa should examine buying records and if they see a sharp slump in demand from a consumer make a check. Sometimes they will find the consumer has wised-up and learned how not to waste power; Zesa can congratulate the person and even pass on what he does as a good example.

But sometimes they will find someone has interfered with Zesa equipment, a very serious criminal offence. An arrest, criminal court case and a jail term will discourage others. The full 10 years in jail might not be needed.

If people hear that someone in their street has gone to jail for even a few months for circumventing a meter they will be deterred from doing the same. A small Zesa investigating unit and a lot of publicity over what happens to cheats might negate the need for smart meters for households; in any case crooks will probably find a way round those, so we will be back to check and investigate.

These two problems need not and should not slow down implementation of an excellent system and one that is now used by many of our neighbours.

Contract adjustments and preventing cheating are going to be with us always. We just need to be sensible in doing the first and methodical in preventing the second.

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