Prepaid Gas Meters: Perks aplenty but installation slow
The installation of prepaid gas meters is going on at a snail's pace even though the system comes with many perks, including cuts in customers' cost and a reduction in gas wastage.
For instance, Tuhin Rahman, a resident of the capital, used to pay Tk 975 each month for gas but her expenses fell drastically since October, when a gas distribution company installed a meter in her apartment.
"My monthly expense for cooking gas got cut by over 50 per cent as a result," Rahman told The Daily Star.
About half a dozen people said their gas bills were cut by 30 to 40 per cent ever since the distribution company replaced its traditional billing system with prepaid meters.
Not only from the customers' end, it will reduce gas usage amid dwindling reserves, which is leading to costly imports in order to keep wheels turning and burners running.
For example, a customer without a prepaid meter uses 70 cubic meters of gas per month while customers with a meter use 30 cubic meters of gas.
But despite all these perks and the instruction of the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission, installation of prepaid meters has been running at a snail's pace.
The installation of prepaid meters began a decade ago but only about four lakh meters have been installed so far, keeping over 90 per cent of the roughly 43 lakh residential customers away from the benefit.
Wishing to remain unnamed, a joint secretary level officer of the Energy and Mineral Resources Division told The Daily Star that they usually prepare bills equal to 87 cubic meters while prepaid meter users use less than 50 cubic meters in a month.
"I recharge only Tk 500 in prepaid meters for a two-burner stove and can use it for one-and-a-half months," said Azimur Rahman Gani, a resident of Mirpur.
A pipeline gas user had to pay a bill of Tk 975 each month for a two-burner stove and Tk 925 for a single burner.
Initiated through a pilot project in 2011, Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company has so far installed 3.33 lakh prepaid meters. It has over 28 lakh customers.
The project was funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency and meters were acquired on a turnkey-basis deal with contractors who import them.
It also signed an agreement with United Commercial Bank to facilitate prepaid card recharge for customers.
However, customers are annoyed with the system as it requires them to visit an agent to recharge their cards while recharging an electricity card can be done through mobile financial service providers' apps.
According to an official of Titas, a Japanese company supplied the meters, which cost Tk 14,000 a piece and last for about 20 years.
And customers now have to pay Tk 60 as rent per month for the meter.
"We have plans to increase it to Tk 100 so that the price of the meter can be collected within 13 years," he said.
Titas has also undertaken two more projects to set up over 12 lakh meters as a part of the government's plan to bring all residential customers under the prepaid system by 2024.
However, both projects are currently with the planning ministry for review.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (BERC) provided instructions on many occasions to install prepaid meters.
"In a notice in 2019, there was a guideline to introduce pre-paid meters," said Md Abdul Jalil, chairman of BERC.
"It will inspire customers not to waste gas and their monthly gas expense will reduce," he added.
About the delays in implementation, a top official of the company said people were reluctant to install meters at the beginning.
"Now they are prepared and eager to get meters. It wouldn't take much time to install meters now," he added.
Karnaphuli Gas Distribution Company Limited, which supplies gas in Chattogram, has already installed 60,000 meters so far. It has about 5.5 lakh customers.
It initiated another project to provide a further one lakh meters. The installation will start from June, according to an official of the company.
Jalalabad Gas Transmission and Distribution System Ltd has also started a project to install meters.
The other three companies under the Bangladesh Oil, Gas and Mineral Corporation (Petrobangla) are Bakhrabad Gas Distribution Company Ltd, Pashchimanchal Gas Company Ltd and Sundarbans Gas Company Ltd.
The meter installation process should be based on preference as customers should have the option to buy and install it if willing, according to Prof M Shamsul Alam, energy adviser to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh.
So if customers could install it on their own accord, everyone would purchase it, he said.
The BERC in its tariff rules in 2015 instructed the companies to introduce the gas meter system but they are not abiding by it, which is punishable.
"These companies are violating this rule and they should face punishment such as fines or imprisonment or both but the BERC is not taking any step," said Alam.
"These companies are creating unnecessary complexities for the customers so they can rip them off," he added.