6 months to go: if not reset, prepaid meters will stop working | Infrastructure news

Unless updated and reset, prepaid meters (electricity, water and gas) will not accept new prepaid credit tokens after the 24th November 2024.

By Duncan Nortier

As we march forward to the deadline, Infrastructure News once again sat down with Dr Silas Mulaudzi, a sustainable energy specialist for The South African Local Government Association (SALGA), to get updated information on where the country sits with their prepaid meter updates.

“In layman’s terms; current prepaid metering software used by utilities around the world will expire after 24th November 2024. Pre-paid meters must be reset and software updated, or consumers will not be able to recharge meters with new tokens and will not have a gas, power or water supply,” says Dr Silas Mulaudzi.

Dr Silas Mulaudzi, a sustainable energy specialist for SALGA

Terminology – STS and TID explained
There are approximately 70 million standard transfer specification (STS) prepaid meters in over 40 countries, used by more than 500 utilities. Encrypted tokens are used to transfer units purchased onto STS meters. These tokens are encoded with a unique Token Identifier (TID) that represents the minutes elapsed since the base date of 1st January 1993 and identifies the date and time of the token generation. TIDs comprise 20 digits to prevent tokens from being reused at meters. They utilise STS for carrying information between a point-of-sale and a meter.

The use of STS technology prevents:

  • Fraudulent transfer of credit resulting from hit-and-miss attempts at entering the correct number
  • Fraudulent generation of tokens from a stolen vending station
  • Fraudulent generation of tokens from legitimate vending stations outside of the utility’s area
  • Fraudulent re-use of tokens which have already been used
  • Tampering of legitimate tokens to change the value
After the 24th November 2024, all STS-compliant meters will stop accepting credit tokens that are calculated on the base date of 1993 and the TID value encoded in the token will be reset back to 0 – unless an intervention takes place.

The extension of these meters will ensure that they accept tokens for another 31 years.

STS Meters

Implications for South Africa
According to SALGA, well over 4.8 million STS meters are managed by municipalities and 6.8 million STS meters are managed by ESKOM. If this deadline is not met, the consequences will be dire. Consumers will be left without services, there is a high chance that there will be violent community protests, and some consumers may even illegally bypass the meters.  

Another risk highlighted by Dr Silas was that municipalities could suffer from a loss of revenue, which would be a big blow to their budgets. With STS meters offline there is also a higher risk of cable theft.

Thinking ahead to the worst-case scenario SALGA created a Risk Mitigation Strategy that encompasses all levels of government from national, provincial and local. This strategy can be customised for the specific needs of each case per province. 

“We have a mitigation strategy, but we firmly believe that all meters will be reset and that this is the best way to avoid any risk. We are committed to resetting all 4.8 million prepaid meters by 24 November 2024, the meters that may be left behind could be those in holiday homes that are always empty, and in cases where customers may refuse access to the meters for municipal staff to upgrade.”

The process
There are 2 main approaches to changing the meters, and the onus falls on local municipalities to implement the strategy that best suits them. 

  1. Customer self service (Do it yourself-DIY), that is the consumers receive key change tokens when they purchase their next credit. All existing credit tokens must be redeemed before the key change token is entered, that is before the meter is upgraded. With community awareness of how to upgrade the meters, customers have done this in different municipalities across the country. Dr Silas Mulaudzi himself received the key change token from his municipality in May 2024 and has upgraded his prepaid meters, “it was simple and straightforward, I did not struggle to upgrade my meter,” says Dr Silas.” The tokens will have to be numbered in the sequence they have to be entered. Consumers would need to have access to a help desk to provide a second line of technical support to resolve difficult issues.
  2. Key change tokens are issued to a dedicated team of technical staff who then visit the meter to enter the tokens themselves. This option provides a good opportunity to do a meter audit and to restore tampered meters at the same time.
SALGA has over the past year met with municipalities to ensure they understand the importance of this change. Municipalities who are struggling with the task are able to approach SALGA for assistance which comes in the form of training local municipalities or encouraging local municipalities to issue a DIY approach so that customers can do it themselves. Where the DIY approach falls short is that some customers are unwilling to reset their meter or are guilty of meter tampering, in these cases, technical teams must be available to handle the issues as they arise. 

Another variable is passive/inactive/non-vending meters. These meters are non-purchasing which Dr Silas says “will need replacing rather than a simple reset” and once again urging municipalities to come forward if they need help. 

No longer in the dark 
A prevailing issue in our first article was that many consumers were simply unaware of what was happening. In January 2023 only 300 000 meters had been reset, and SALGA met this challenge by means of a widespread information campaign aimed at consumers. Dr Silas says that “the responsibility to create awareness and act falls onto the municipality, but it is our responsibility to inform the municipalities.” In January 2023 many municipalities had not yet taken part in any of the SALGA STS surveys and had not attended any of the information sessions with many being unaware that these meters must be reset. Now, after a 7-month campaign of engagement, the awareness in both customers and municipalities has dramatically risen. 

Salga operates a dashboard on its website with real-time updates on the meter rests. According to the SALGA dashboard, 56.9% of meters have been reset, totalling 2 781 005 meters so far. 

The provinces performing the best are the Western Cape, and Limpopo, while the province performing the worst is the Free State. 

“From the dashboard, we can actively check where SALGA needs to intervene. We have identified a few municipalities in the Free State that are in desperate need of intervention.” 

Resetting these meters that power the lives of many South Africans has been a difficult task but SALGA remains optimistic. “We are confident, we are getting updates every day, and we are in the process of quantifying passive units and with the data we have we can see the end is in sight.”

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