While much of the smart grid industry’s focus on emerging Asian markets is focused on China’s huge potential and Japan’s high-tech yet power-constrained grid landscape, there are lots of other enormous Asian markets awaiting the benefits of grid technologies that meet their particular needs.

Take the Philippines, a country of nearly 96 million people spread across some 2,000 islands, but with nearly a quarter of the population living in the capital city of Manila and the surrounding metropolitan area.

As an island nation dependent on imported fuel for power generation, the Philippines faces high electricity prices and supply uncertainties. Its growing economy will require a lot more power in the decades to come, which it’s hoping to bolster with renewable power, from geothermal to wind and solar.  

And while its electrification rates are high compared to countries like India, it faces the challenge of serving many poor customers who struggle to pay their power bills, as well as a grid in need of upgrade to reach the “stable, reliable and robust transmission and distribution systems” called for in a 2012 report from the country’s Department of Energy (PDF).

All these factors have led to plans for a nationwide upgrade to smart grid technologies, ranging from a wide-scale rollout of prepay metering technology, to a big push to electrify the country’s vehicle fleets, including battery-powered versions of the ubiquitous “jeepneys” that serve mass public transportation needs. 

As the country’s biggest distribution utility, Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), with more than 25 million people connected via some 5 million meters, is at the forefront of many of these plans. On Tuesday, General Electric unveiled its role in helping Meralco take a first step on that journey, via a prepay smart metering rollout with smart meter networking company Trilliant that is expected to eventually expand to a whole host of smart grid services.

The financial terms and exact scale of the project weren’t disclosed. GE, which will be providing the meters and system integration services for the project, has been working with Meralco since last year, and is tapping Ecologic Analytics, the meter data management company owned by Toshiba's Landis+Gyr, and prepay services vendor Orga Systems for the project. In a February interview with the Manila Bulletin newspaper, GE Philippines CEO Jocot de Dios noted a preliminary target of 40,000 meters, which could expand, depending on customers’ “take-up” of the services the meters are meant to enable. 

As for Trilliant, it will be providing its Smart Grid Communications Platform, including the 2.4-gigahertz communications networks and underlying software now in use by about 400 customers around the world, including large-scale meter networks at U.S. utility Central Maine Power, Canadian utility Hydro One, and U.K. energy retailer British Gas.

The idea is to provide “full two-way, high-bandwidth communication, a network from the centralized system, all the way down to in-home displays,” Bryan Spear, Trilliant’s managing director for the Asia-Pacific region, said in an interview this week. To support prepayment services, Meralco intends to provide customer bill updates, alerts on account balances and pricing information over the internet or via mobile phones, which are a key device for doing business throughout Asian markets.

Paying in advance for electricity isn’t popular in the United States. But it’s actually quite common in many other markets, from the U.K. to India, Latin America and Africa, where it helps provide utilities with a steadier stream of revenue and fewer credit collections problems, and also gives consumers a more direct understanding of their power costs, instead of being hit with big after-the-fact bills that they may struggle to pay.

Meralco’s focus on prepayment as a business case for its smart meter rollout is based both on regulatory requirements, and customer research that “shows that a large percentage of their customer base prefers the option of prepayment, to manage and control their usage,” Spear said.

Beyond that, “There are going to be more services coming in to customers in the coming years around renewables and electric vehicles, and they want to change their relationship with the customer, to make it a more collaborative relationship,” he said. “When this communications network and the advanced smart meters are in place, they can leverage this data and platform for other high-value benefits, like distribution automation, critical peak pricing -- and electric vehicle integration is a big one.”

Trilliant competes against smart grid networking contenders such as Silver Spring Networks, as well as meter vendors with in-house communications and network technologies like Itron, Sensus, Elster and Landis+Gyr. But it also partners with those meter vendors, much as Silver Spring does, to embed its networking technology inside third-party meters.

Trilliant’s 2.4-gigahertz mesh technology could give it a leg up in Asia against the 900-megahertz mesh deployed by nearly all its competitors, including Silver Spring, Spear added. That’s because much of Asia reserves that 900-megahertz band for cellular communications, outside of important exceptions such as Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, he said.

That differentiation helped Trilliant win another Asian project with Malaysian utility Tenaga Nasional Berhad, and Spear said that more “potentially large projects” are coming in Southeast Asia. Trilliant, Silver Spring, Itron, Landis+Gyr and other smart meter networking vendors are also embracing cellular communications, which can allow utilities to deploy smart meters without building out their own communications networks, and may somewhat blur the competitive distinctions between differences in mesh technologies.