The power sector has primarily fuelled India’s growth story in the past two odd decades. Since 2013, more than 130 million people have joined the power grid, indicating massive expansion in access to electricity. Increased electrification has meant higher penetration of the internet and better access to education across the country. It has enabled citizens across the nation to participate in India’s socio-economic progress.
The installed capacity has increased by over five times from 63.63 GW in 1990 to 363.37 today. The renewable energy sector (wind, solar and small hydro), which had negligible presence till 2002, today generates 82.59GW of energy.
However, despite the remarkable progress, India is quite far from meeting its rising demand for electricity. In 2017, 178 million people were still living without access to grid electricity. Further, those with it did not enjoy regular supply. India was ranked 80th among 137 economies worldwide by 2018 Global Competitiveness Report, on the reliability of electricity supply. Power cuts continue to be an obstacle to industrial and business progress. The problem, apparently lies, with how we do; what we do after producing electricity.
The carrier; not the cargo
Out of the power sector’s three primary segments — generation, transmission and distribution, the latter two need special attention. Post generation of bulk power, transmission utilities carry it to the distribution substations through a grid, from where distribution utilities, or Discoms, eventually supply retail electricity to individual consumers through a distribution network. The transmission and distribution (T&D) sector is beset with issues, including loss-making Discoms, mounting T&D losses,frequent power outages, and usage of obsolete wiring and equipment, to name a few.
A critical issue in T&D is the state-owned Discoms’ abject financial situation. Discoms enter into power purchase agreements (PPAs) with power generation companies for the purchase of bulk power. Being financially distressed has dented their purchasing ability and also rendered them incapable of enhancing the distribution infrastructure. To mitigate their rising debts and losses, the Government of India has, periodically, introduced various bailout packages since 2001. However, this can’t be a stand-alone and permanent solution and has to be complemented by efforts to improve efficiencies, especially, by plugging the T&D losses.
In FY 2018-19, the aggregate T&D losses were to the tune of 18.5 percent of the revenue, which is way beyond the global average for developing economies. A significant portion of these losses comprised of AT&C (Aggregate technical and commercial) losses.
High technical losses point to systemic flaws in the network, which can be caused by multiple stages of transmission, overloading of equipment including transformers and conductors, and usage of obsolete wiring, and related elements. Commercial losses primarily occur due to pilferage and theft of electricity, defective meters, erroneous recording of electricity consumed, and lack of energy accounting and auditing. To reduce these losses, adoptions of new-age technology is the way forward. These technologies can positively alter India’s T&D landscape — both in terms of reducing losses and improving reliability.
Plugging the gaps
Affixing IoT (Internet of Things) sensors to equipment can enable remote and periodic measurement of parameters including vibration, temperature, and wear. It can allow devising of an optimum preventive maintenance schedule to ensure peak efficiency throughout the equipment lifecycle. Pipelines with internet-connected sensors can send in information about potential leaks, which could, in turn, help prevent potential wastage of resources. Smart meters can provide accurate real-time consumption data and stop losses due to underestimation of consumption. Smart grids can gather more dynamic information about the network’s health.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) can prove to be a boon for the renewable energy sector. A renewable energy project, with an AI-driven storage mechanism, will have a higher economic value. Losses occurring due to irregular alternation of production phases with idle periods can be successfully overcome. With AI, energy companies can also deploy concepts, including predictive analytics, machine learning, and big data, to achieve higher economies.
Robots and drones can be used to handle risky activities involving handling and maintenance of hard-to-reach assets, leading to savings on operation and maintenance costs, with enhanced safety parameters.
India must get its house in order in T&D to prevent the wheels of its progress from coming off. For India’s growth story to continue unabated, electricity has to be ferried efficiently over its mountains and seas.
by P.K. Paine, Chief Operations Officer, Transmission & Distribution and Railways, Sterling and Wilson. The views expressed are personal.