As opposition against the rollout of smart meters continues to mount in California (interesting to see who exactly is opposed to the devices in Northern California vs. Southern California) with the state’s three big utilities — San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and Pacific Gas & Electric — now being mandated to allow customers to opt-out and keep their old analog meters (at a cost), it’s a whole different ballgame in Brazil and other Latin American countries where smart meter deployment is rapidly spreading.
Here’s the thing: Electricity theft is a massive problem in the poorer areas of Latin American countries. In parts of Brazil for instance, as much as 20 percent of the electricity output is pinched, according to Businessweek. Because of this, utility company employees have found their otherwise mundane jobs — making the rounds from household to household to read analog meters — to be increasingly violent.
Businessweek describes the anti-confrontation techniques employed by AES Eletropaulo employee Robson Dourado when making his meter-reading rounds in the slums of São Paulo where many of his co-workers have been attacked by angry customers caught stealing power: “To avoid confrontations with the street toughs who walk around with guns tucked into their trousers, Dourado, 28, practices a studied indifference. ‘I just keep on doing what I’m doing until they come speak to me,’ he says. ‘If there’s trouble, I leave.’” Hey, his job may be rendered obsolete thanks to smart meter deployment, but at least he won't be attacked by vicious electricity thieves any longer.
By taking the human factor out of the equation, smart meters have not just been a godsend for beleaguered meter readers; they also allow utility companies to remotely detect suspiciously heavy demand (a telltale sign of an illegal hookup) and to turn off the electricity at addresses that are delinquent with payments … no physical confrontation required. Of course, this Big Brother-y advantage of smart meters is what has California activists all riled up (along with health concerns over radiation exposure) but in areas of Latin America smart metering is heavily being viewed as a practical, non-confrontational, and money-saving theft-prevention tactic.
It’s estimated that smart meter sales across Latin America will generate $24 billion in revenue by the year 2020 according to research firm Northeast Group. Sales are already particularly heavy in Brazil where it’s anticipated that 63.5 million units will be deployed by the end of the decade. Last year alone, 50,000 Elster smart meters were installed under heavy police surveillance in two of Rio de Janiero's most violent slums where as much as 80 percent of electricity is stolen. Instances of electricity theft has since disappeared in those areas.
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