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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Measurement of quality of service of electricity distribution

What you measure is what you can manage. In thinking about public goods in India, achieving a sound public policy framework in India, and appropriate checks and balances for providers, critically requires sound measurement of outcomes.

In the area of telecom, TRAI has started working on measurement of quality of service (QOS). As an example, look at the PDF file that they are putting out. I find it interesting, but not yet designed in a way that facilitates customer choice. When you're picking a mobile phone vendor in Delhi or Bombay, it is hard to read this file and understand which vendors are strong on QOS. In the area of electricity, a think tank named Prayas has embarked on measurement of the quality of service at a few locations in Pune. They have setup a few data loggers which generate realtime data for the mains voltage, and measure supply interruptions. They have released documentation, and a lovely google maps mashup which locates their data loggers and gives access to the information being captured (click on any of the balloons). Their email says:

For the first time in India, the ESMI captures supply interruptions data as well as voltage levels at the ordinary consumer location.

Poor supply quality (i.e. frequent supply interruptions and low voltage levels), is the most common complaint by electricity consumers and often results in consumers unwillingness to pay. Poor supply quality forces consumers to either invest in back-up devices such as stabilisers, inverters and generators or they suffer loss of productivity and inconvenience. Though recently efforts are being made to capture supply quality parameters, (e.g. CEA compilation of interruptions at 11 kV feeders in urban areas) there is still a long way to go for availability of reliable and comprehensive indicators of supply quality.

The Electricity Supply Monitoring Initiative (ESMI), by Prayas, is developed as a complement to such ongoing efforts to monitor electricity supply quality. This is a tool for consumers and regulators to get an idea of the ground reality and to increase the accountability of electricity utilities. For example, this will allow consumers to verify if load shedding is being carried out as per the regulatory commission's directive. Similarly ESMI data could be used to assess the impact of large capital expenditure (under projects such as APDRP or MSEDCL's infrastructure plan) on supply quality.

Currently data loggers are installed at three locations in Pune, and supply interruptions and voltage profile of these locations is available at This site will be updated periodically and many more locations will be added in the next few weeks.

As an example, their Pune results reveal interesting and new facts:

Pune does not face any scheduled load shedding due to implementation of `Pune Model'. Under this arrangement local industries give the required relief to the grid by generating power through their captive power plants (using liquid fuel such as diesel). In spite of this as shown in the tables, Pune consumers fact ten to twenty sustained interruptions (i.e. interruptions of 4 minutes and more) every month and do not have supply for about eleven hours every month. As per Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission (MERC) regulations, voltage for low-tension consumers should be between 225 volts to 255 volts. But as shown in the following tables, voltage levels in Pune are significantly below MERC norms. For example, even in central Pune (Deccan Gymkhana) voltage is often below MERC norms and for about 7% to 9% of the time is very low (i.e. below 195 Volts). This indicates that, apart from sufficient availability of power, proper maintenance and strengthening of local distribution network is essential to ensure good quality of supply. The electricity supply quality in rural areas is expected to be still worse. In the next few weeks ESMI will focus on capturing status of electricity supply quality in rural areas.

I'm a great believer in the importance of information in closing the loop and enabling superior public goods. What is not easy to figure out is the incentive structure for this information. This information has public goods characteristics, so what would work best is for a government agency to contract-out its production and public dissemination with tight integration between the public goods outcomes data and google earth. However, this would require sensible decision making and procurement on the part of the government agency. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. A dysfunctional and non-responsive government agency would not even make this first step correctly - it might do nothing, or it might muck up the contract, or the contract might get awarded to the wrong team. Without a feedback loop from outcomes to citizens to policy, these mistakes might not get corrected.


  1. Ajay,

    I love your blog and read every post top to bottom and enrich myself with your ideas...BUT I am a die hard Puneite and so the name should be PUNE not POONA...pls pls correct it...


  2. Okay, I did that. But I'm not very keen on these new names :-) I generally say Bombay and not Mumbai.

  3. Dr. Shah,

    TRAI publishes a quarterly report called Quality of Service and Performance Indicators. In addition to releasing data on subscribers and ARPU, it also contains Quality of Service metrics including congestion and drop rates.

    I am not sure of the accuracy of these data, but TRAI definitely has the framework for QoS monitoring in place.

  4. Aadisht,

    Thanks! I will go to the TRAI website and modify my blog entry accordingly.

  5. Ajay,

    Another viable option that comes to mind is something like this: The QoS parameters (voltage fluctuations etc.) are not too difficult to measure and log. An enterprising company could easily make an inexpensive PC-interfaced device that does that.
    After that all we need is a central site + a oogle maps hashup where people upload data. Presto, the QoS is there for all to see. In the US weather reporting networks, cell coverage maps and even DSL internet QoS sites operating on this principle are thriving.

    just a thought!


  6. Rahul,

    What Prayas has done is surely not rocket science. It's exactly as you are suggesting: setup some data logging device which feeds up to a computer which feeds up to the net. The question is: Who's going to do this on a large scale? Large scale is required on this problem because of the geographical nature of the data. Distribution conditions can fluctuate every few kilometres.

    Why is it rational for an individual to buy such a device and serve the larger community? Ad revenues?

  7. Ajay,

    I see your point. The trick for the success of a large scale "free" operation would lie in setting up a good incentive structure for individuals to buy equipment and post data. Ad revenues could be one option. Perhaps some venture capital might initially need to be injected to get to a critical mass of reports to make it attractive for people to visit such a site. In the long run one would hopefully be self-sustaining.

    Rather than individuals, I can forsee larger stakeholders jumping in. One only needs to provide a forum. Let's say X is a retailer in "Pune". For him the cumulative lost sales due to a power-outage are definately large enough to justify the 1000 Rs(say) investment for such a device if he could widely document this and hopefully precipitate a change. One could make similar arguments for small-industrial units, housing-societies etc.

    A key factor, of course, would be how expensive such data loggers could be produced for. A subsidy structure there might help.{not govt. subsidies but stuff similar to where cell companies subsidize handsets to sell more lines etc.; eg. I could forsee a new entrant to power who can provide better quality advertizing these devices to demonstrate the superiority of his network; may not work so well due to the inherent monopolies in power-distribution)

    Finally, web-users typically could be expected to contribute for an incentive far less than what one would rationally expect for the time spent. Wikipedia, wikimapea and other apps have shown that users seem to get some sort of satisfaction in "authoring" content that compensates for the time/resorces spent. Most such examples do not get the user any direct benefits.

  8. Yes, the `open source' approach can work. But the checks and balances are harder than meets the eye. Example: Suppose individuals are to buy a data logger, upload information, and earn some small money from advertising. What's to prevent a person from not buying the data logger and uploading fake information?

    Here's a concrete challenge. We know that MTNL or other broadband vendors are at a pricepoint like Rs.0.5 per meg. Can a distributed QOS system be made to work, where users volunteer to install a small piece of software, which consumes no more than 1 megabit of traffic a day (i.e. just a cost of Rs.0.5 per day) and produce QOS data about broadband connections? This is an easier challenge because it doesn't require buying a data logger. But it does require that the volunteer burns Rs.0.5 a day, and that the volunteer installs some software.

  9. Well said! That's a perfect test case. We just have to wait and watch if someone shapes the idea into a service!

    Here's something similar already functional in the more mature US DSL markets:

    Perhaps there are more; the point is :Is there something inherently different in the cost/incentive structure of the US vs India or DSL vs Power sectors that makes such ideas thrive in one and not others?

    But the point you make about rouge users ("freeloaders") is very valid. I can't think of any easy scheme to outwit those but I suspect the key will again lie in devising an incentive structure that makes such a move unprofitable(to wit: Sites like Amazon and Ebay allow people to review sellers or books; this opens the field for malicious entries; but allowing other viewers to rate the reviews themselves makes reviewers less likely to commit such fraud; Of course, it implies that there IS and easy way to catch malicious reviews! not so easy for a DSL report or a Power QoS)

  10. Dear Mr. Shah,
    I am studying the case of various IPPs in some states of India. Are you in anyway dealing with the Indian Power Sector? Can I talk to you in this regards?
    I surfed through your blog and website and hence wanted to contact you. Very thought provoking blog.
    Best regards,

  11. Did PRAYAS or any other agency set up Electrical Supply Monitoring System after their pune Success?

    Does Rural India by now has any such monitoring system? As I believe electrical and ground water nexus remain largely in rural india and quest for better quality is always there...

    Now its 2011 I hope there may be many installations even in Rural India...or did this thing did not work? if so why? Please answer


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