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Public Sector and Governance

Machine Learning Helps Power Down Electricity Theft in Jamaica

Anna Lerner's picture
  • In Jamaica, about a quarter of electricity produced is stolen or “lost” through non-paying customers and/or accounting errors. Manual detection has failed to make a difference in reducing this theft.
  • ESMAP’s technical assistance team implemented a machine learning model to help Jamaican utility JPS identify and decrease incidents of theft.
  • The machine learning model is based on an open source code, and is available for free to any utility.
About a quarter of the electricity produced by Jamaica’s energy utility, Jamaica Public Service (JPS) is stolen. When traditional, labor-intensive methods failed to produce lasting results, Jamaica tried a different approach: machine learning.
 
Globally, billions of dollars are lost every year due to electricity theft, wherein electricity is distributed to customers but is never paid for. In 2014 alone, Jamaica’s total power transmission and distribution system reported 27% of losses (due to technical and non-technical reasons), close to double the regional average. While the utility company absorbs a portion of the cost, it also passes some of that cost onto consumers. Both actors therefore have an incentive to want to change this.
 
To combat this, JPS would spend more than $10 million (USD) on anti-theft measures every year, only to see theft numbers temporarily dip before climbing back up again. The problem was, these measures relied primarily on human-intensive, manual detection, and customers stealing electricity used more and more sophisticated ways to go around regularly metered use. JPS employees would use their institutional knowledge of serial offenders and would spend hours poring over metering data to uncover irregular patterns in electricity usage to identify shady accounts. But it wasn’t enough to effectively quash incidents of theft.

Electrification planning made easier with new open source tool

Dimitris Mentis's picture


Evaluating the optimal way to expand electricity access across a country is difficult, especially in countries where energy related data is scarce and not centralized. Geospatial plans informing universal electricity access strategies and investments can easily take 18 to 24 months to complete.

A team working on a national electrification plan for Zambia last December did not have that much time.

They faced a six-month deadline to develop a plan, or they would miss out on a funding window, said Jenny Hasselsten, an energy specialist at the World Bank brought in to help with the electrification project in partnership with the government of Zambia.

Powering Sub-Saharan Africa – A fresh take on an old problem

Masami Kojima's picture
Man looking at electricity meters in Bamako, Mali 
Pic: Aarthi Sivaraman/World Bank

“If there is one thing that could really help my business, it would be reliable power supply,” said David, a small business owner in Lagos, on my recent trip to Nigeria.
“I agree. If only …,” echoed another.

And not without reason.

Africa lags every other region in the world when it comes to electricity access for its people. Only one in three Sub-Saharan Africans has access to electricity. That’s less than half of the rate of access in South Asia, the region with the second-lowest access rate. If we were to measure access to “reliable” electricity, then those numbers would be even more dismal.

Worryingly, the rate of access has been increasing at a mere 5 percentage points every decade, against population growth of 29 percent. If something is not done to dramatically change this trend, Africa will not see universal access to electricity in the 21st century. This is a seriously worrying prospect as the world races toward a 2030 deadline of universal access to electricity.

The target of achieving universal access by 2030 by the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative and the billions of dollars committed by the U.S. government’s Power Africa plan underline the urgency of the situation. As a reminder, more than 1 billion people around the world still live without access to electricity and 600 million of those live in Africa.

So, are Africa’s utilities financially equipped to respond to this call?

Powerless in Kanpur

Sheoli Pargal's picture
Katiyabaaz - master of illegal connections
Documentary on the power crisis in Kanpur, a North Indian city.

Kaatiyabaaz” is a compelling documentary film that highlights the power crisis in Kanpur, a city of three million people in north India. 

It has all the elements of a steamy Hindi movie: 45-degree Celsius heat, power outages that last 12-15 hours, and illegal connections that come up every night and disappear in the morning. The everyday characters are gripping too. There’s a Robin-Hood-like street electrician who “provides power” by hooking to transmission lines. An upright bureaucrat (a woman, imagine that!) trying to get people to pay their bills and prevent theft. A city full of tired, angry citizens fed up with poor service provided.  The film underlines how people will do whatever it takes to get some juice in their wires so that they can get lights, fans, water…the basic necessities of 20th century life.