Ravindra Kumar Verma is happy to be at the helm of affairs as chairman, Central Electricity Authority, at a time when the industry is witnessing many positive changes and many “good” challenges…
Can there possibly be a better time to be chairman of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) than now? When India has emerged from a prolonged era of energy shortage to a new dawn of electricity surplus for the first time in decades? When a focused determination is driving government policy? When the economic destiny of the country seems to be on the upswing?
For Ravindra Kumar Verma, this is a moment to be savoured. “I feel very happy and proud to be at the helm of affairs when the power sector is in the midst of this transition,” he says. For once, the challenges he faces as chairman, CEA, are those of plenty, rather than paucity. “For decades we have lived through shortages. It’s going to take us time to change our mindset to appreciate the fact that a lot of power is now available,” he says.
The new situation is shaking up the status quo. Everyone in the industry, he says, will have to change the old habits of thinking and align themselves with this pleasant new scenario: tariffs, thinking, the approach to consumption will all change. “We should be talking about enhancing electricity consumption and accelerating the rate of growth of demand. That’s a huge, huge change. We should be talking not about rationing electricity but about becoming a supplier of electricity like any other business, of attracting more and more consumers, and seeing how this in turn affects pricing and everything else,” he says.
There are so many positive things happening simultaneously that Verma says a sense of excitement is inevitable. Take the fact that the largest influx of renewable energy (around 175 GW by 2022) into India’s energy mix is under way – so much so that it’s going to be a challenge to handle the intermittency and variability associated with renewable energy. “The good thing about this challenge is that the extent of the intermittency will gradually reduce the more we add renewable energy sources at dispersed locations, and we are looking forward to that,” he says. Take the advances being made in battery energy storage systems that will make it easier to deal with the variations in renewable energy supply. Wind and solar will be stored when not required and released when demand is high. The only fly in the ointment used to be the prohibitive costs of battery energy storage systems, but these, Verma says, are coming down. “When economies of scale also kick in, prices are likely to throw a challenge to conventional energy sources,” he predicts.
It pleases Verma that this new phase is spawning innovation, particularly in methods of pricing, rather like the way the swift growth in the mobile telephony industry triggered pricing innovations. “We are debating the segregation of carriage and content, of segregating the infrastructure from the retail part so that there will be separate licences. The distribution licence will take care of infrastructure and the second licence will be for supply to the consumer, and this supply will come from different sources. Then we will see the end prices for consumers coming down and the quality of power will improve,” he says. One outcome of this will be more retailers and more distributors. When that happens, the complexities of handling this new system will increase and India will need smartness in the system, that is, smart meters and a smart grid. When all this is in place, the system will be more exposed to cyber risks, so cyber safety also becomes an important concern.
All these new possibilities have generated a buzz in the industry, making people optimistic, energetic and enthusiastic. The challenges being thrown up, says Verma, are “good” challenges. Technology is evolving and will help solve many of the issues. Already, the smart meters that were in pilot projects have emerged, ready to be implemented, in India and in other countries. “One good thing about the Indian power sector is that, in terms of technology transfer or adoption, we are one with the world. If something is happening elsewhere in the world, it is also happening here. We are not lagging behind at all. We are heading towards a global market. It’s a new world.”
The fact that the Indian power sector is opening up, says Verma, is why big foreign names and big brands are looking at India as a huge market. With the sector opening up and the government’s Make in India campaign, he is convinced that it makes sense for foreign investors to invest in setting up manufacturing bases here.
The future of renewable energy alone is very bright, given the fall in the price of solar power. “It is incredible that it has come down to below Rs 2.50 per unit,” says Verma. This kind of tariff is an outright challenge to coal-fired stations. “Because of the contribution of renewable energy, in future years, the contribution of coal-fired generation will fall. According to our calculations, the contribution of coal-fired power stations will fall to about 61 per cent of the total from about 75 per cent at present and it will fall even further,” he believes.
Based on his 38 years in the industry, Verma speaks with authority. His career began after he graduated as an electrical engineer from the Delhi College of Engineering. He passed the Combined Engineering Services Examination conducted by UPSC for the prestigious Central Power Engineering Services in 1979 and joined the CEA in 1981.
He began as a power system planner. He loved the work and thought it would be his future for a long time. Then he moved into grid operations and suddenly realised that other areas could be just as interesting. “I was operating a system that I had designed when I joined the Northern Regional Electricity Board in 1987, in the load despatch centre in Delhi for northern India. For the next 14 years I worked on managing the supply to the whole of northern India. That was my world. I was very happy in it – operating the system, scheduling generation, organising shutdowns, giving operating instructions,” he says.
The work changed his personality, forcing him to find new reserves of stamina and discipline. Huge shortages meant that he and his team were firefighting all the time. “The beauty of firefighting is that it tires you out but you use your potential to the maximum and an inner strength is forced out. I was put to maximum challenges in difficult situations,” he says. He used to spend consecutive nights in the control room. He worked in shifts for 10 years. The night shift began at 8 p.m. and ended at 8 a.m. For 10 years, he didn’t celebrate Holi or Diwali, nor his wedding anniversaries, nor his wife and two sons’ birthdays, nor picked his sons up from school.
Then, for the next four years, he worked as executive engineer, operations, and again had to work like a machine, just like everybody else. “I have a lot of respect for grid operations. It’s a very tough job. You need tremendous discipline. You have to monitor all the parameters closely with an eagle eye – voltage, frequency, safety – for continuous and reliable power. It calls for a very systematic and scientific approach and a lot of concentration,” he says.
He rose up the ranks and worked in distribution for a while. Based on his experience, Verma says distribution is a very important segment because it has a direct interface with the consumer and, since it collects revenue from the consumer, it drives the whole power sector. Unfortunately, distribution was neglected for a long time.
“Historically, the mindset of planners and policymakers was focused on creating assets in generation and transmission. Distribution, the tail end, barely had a look-in. I will be frank and say it didn’t get the attention it deserved and one consequence of this neglect is the poor financial condition of the distribution utilities. The government, fortunately, has come out with new schemes and UDAY, for financial restructuring, is doing well,” he says.
In 2001, Verma became director, in 2014 chief engineer and then in 2016, principal chief engineer, a member as well as chairman. His work spans a large range. He led the inter-ministerial central team constituted with the states for preparing state-specific documents for providing 24×7 power for all. He is chairman of the technical committee of the National Smart Grid Mission set up to evaluate DPRs and finalise benchmark costs.
Verma has also been instrumental in finalising the functional requirements of advanced metering infrastructure, including the technical specifications of single-phase and three-phase whole current smart meters.
Alongside all this very high-level work, he is equally concerned about providing connections to the last villages that are still languishing in darkness. He says an announcement will soon be made about the completion of this last phase of electrification. “Imagine the scenario. Once we have released the connections to unelectrified households, they will suddenly join the rest of the consumers in the country and consumption of electricity will shoot up. It will boost the economy and other economic activities. Once electricity reaches an area, it changes the whole shape and life of that region. There is a life that opens up. Everything is fired up,” he says.
Verma is one of those unusual people (in these times) who grew up in the New Delhi neighbourhood of R.K. Puram (where the CEA office is located) and has spent his entire life there. He likes to spend time with his wife and sons, who are both engineers (“I’m afraid the answer is yes,” he laughs when asked if he forced them to take up engineering).
He enjoys watching movies and walking, when time permits. He calls himself a firm believer in God and says his belief that it is God, not us, who is doing everything, is growing stronger by the day. “Sometimes I see things happening – both good and bad – which I never imagined would happen, because you cannot possibly have any control over such complex, multi-variable dynamic equations. And that is why what you desire may not happen. That is why people say, focus on your karma and leave the rest to God.”
Next year, retirement beckons. He is looking forward to it but is not planning to be inactive. “It’s been a successful and satisfying innings. But I don’t want to sit around. I want to be active and useful by using the knowledge I have accumulated over almost four decades,” he says.