Fixing Finances: IT solutions improve discom operations

IT solutions improve discom operations

Characterised by mounting financial and operational losses, the distribution segment has long been considered the weakest link in the power value chain. As of March 2015, state discoms are estimated to have accumulated losses of Rs 3.8 trillion and outstanding debts of about Rs 4.3 trillion. In addition, the aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses of many discoms still hover over 30 per cent. This precarious situation can be attributed to the lack of financial discipline in terms of filing tariff revision petitions, political interference in subsidy management, and operational inefficiencies. While tariff revisions and political interference can be tackled through policy support, operational inefficiency needs to be countered by IT solutions.

IT can be a game changer for discoms in revenue collection, minimising AT&C losses, enabling energy accounting and ensuring efficient consumer services. The central government’s Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme (R-APDRP), which has now been subsumed under the Integrated Power Development Scheme, is the first national initiative to focus on IT implementation in discoms.

IT implementation under the R-APDRP

Projects under the R-APDRP are being taken up in two parts: Part A and Part B. While Part A involves the establishment of IT-enabled systems for energy accounting and auditing as well as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) for big towns, Part B includes projects for strengthening regular sub-transmission and distribution systems.

Part A’s IT applications include consumer indexing, asset mapping, geographic information system (GIS) mapping, automated meter reading (AMR) on distribution transformers (DTs) and feeders, automatic data logging for DTs and feeders, SCADA implementation, asset mapping of the distribution network at and below 11 kV, feeder segregation/ring-fencing, IT applications for consumer grievances, integrated meter reading, billing and collection, IT-enabled consumer service centres, energy accounting, auditing and management information services, and the establishment of baseline data systems.

As of January 2015, funding of over Rs 27 billion had been disbursed under Part A across 1,409 towns covered under the scheme. The total sanctioned cost of Part A projects is over Rs 54 billion.

Key IT applications

Discoms can choose from a range of IT applications depending on their requirements and desired end-results. Their main applications include customer relationship management (CRM), workforce automation, GIS, AMR, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), SCADA and load forecasting.

Many utilities have implemented CRM for addressing customer grievances. CRM software helps create a single window for complaint resolution and also provides information on faults/breakdowns on a 24×7 basis. Centralised helpline numbers are created for all queries related to power supply, metering, billing, anti- corruption, vigilance, power theft, etc.

Utilities are also considering custom-built mobile applications for workforce automation to enable efficient asset installation, condition monitoring, preventive maintenance, refurbishment and calibration. These applications can also be integrated with SAP to carry out processes like meter installation, meter removal, periodic reading, meter seal management, and meter testing.

In addition, utilities are extensively adopting GIS, which provides an optimal platform for capturing location-based asset information. The effective operation of a distribution system requires good quality maps for asset management. The integration of GIS with CRM, SCADA, distribution management systems and outage management systems (OMS) helps manage the distribution network through faster and better decision-making. GIS helps unlock value for all stakeholders by enhancing workforce productivity, providing faster and better services for customers, and adding revenue for shareholders.

Today, AMR has become essential for effective energy management and energy accounting as well as overcoming the issue of manual readings. The preparation of an electrical network database, consumer indexing and documentation is the first step towards an effective AMR system and accurate energy accounting. Its advantages can be further leveraged in correctly identifying areas of low voltages and overloading and causes of high energy losses.

Metering practices are gradually evolving to AMI, which integrates more IT. AMI is a set of measurement, collection, storage and management systems that includes meters at the customer site, communication networks, data acquisition and management systems, and business systems. Unlike AMR, AMI enables two-way communication with the smart meter at the consumer’s end.

SCADA is another crucial application that helps in the remote monitoring and control of distribution operations. Many utilities are now equipping new substations and DTs with remote data transmission capabilities. SCADA systems at substations collect information about power flow and other parameters. This is transmitted to the central server for centralised monitoring and can be used for load flow study, reliability index calculation and system planning.

OMS allows utilities to manage unscheduled and scheduled outages and ensures reliable grid operations. It minimises the impact of outages through its self-healing capabilities, typically integrating SCADA, crew monitoring, asset monitoring and allied systems. It tracks information about outages from customer calls, AMI, SCADA, etc. and helps utilities from the initial fault notification through prediction, crew assignment, fault isolation and return-to-normal switching.

Accurately measuring AT&C losses is the first step towards reducing them. The deployment of meter data management systems (MDMS) can facilitate energy accounting and enable a utility to accurately determine losses. Typically, meters are installed at every interface point between transmission and distribution. Data is collected remotely from these meters using a dedicated communication network and automatically fed into the MDMS. Finally, the data is sent to SAP, where it is compared with the total billed energy to arrive at an accurate distribution loss figure.

Forecasting tools can also significantly aid discoms in load management. While short-term load forecasting involves forecasting for one or two days ahead, mid-term forecasting involves planning for a couple of months. Long-term forecasting involves planning for periods longer than a year. Short-term forecasts are calculated on the basis of historical load, current weather and local conditions like public holidays and protests. Mid-term load forecasts, meanwhile, are based on historical load and historical weather while long-term forecasts are largely based on growth plans, like whether a new township is planned or a new city is coming up.

The way forward

Smart grids and cloud computing are the way forward for the distribution segment, once the basic IT infrastructure is in place. A smart grid is essentially a vision of a better electricity delivery infrastructure. It utilises information and communications technology so that power systems can operate more efficiently in a reliable and safe manner. AMI is a crucial component of smart grid implementation, comprising smart meters, data concentrator units, communication networks, meter data acquisition systems and meter data management on a single platform.

Meanwhile, cloud computing refers to storing and accessing data and programmes in remote servers hosted on the internet instead of a personal computer’s hard drive. Cloud computing services entail the delivery of on-demand computing resources like applications and data centres over the internet on a pay-per-use basis. Cloud computing is suitable for discoms due to their intermittent high resource requirements, which can also be seen in AMI, analytics and customer care applications. Meanwhile, metering, billing and collection applications have medium resource requirements, and applications related to connection management, work and asset management have low resource requirements.

Overall, distribution utilities need best-in-class business solutions for improving their returns on investment. They need to focus on their core business, that is, network operations. Customer services and IT applications are important enablers in improving operational performance. Utilities should ensure that their chosen IT applications are robust, scalable and adaptive and have an open computing and communication architecture. Care must also be taken to ensure consistent infrastructure for data collaboration, communication and interoperability. Automated backups must be ensured as they are crucial for protecting data and recovering it during breakdowns.