Smart Distribution

Key deployments, projects and future plans

The turnaround of the distribution segment hinges on the successful deployment of advanced technologies. In recent years, steps have been taken by the government to promote the use of information technology and operational technology under the Integrated Power Development Scheme, smart metering under the Smart Metering National Programme (SMNP), and smart grids under the National Smart Grid Mission (NSGM). Utilities across the world are now adopting new technologies such as blockchain, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance their operational efficiency and provide better consumer services. Power Line takes stock of technology trends in the distribution space.

Smart grids

In a key development, all smart grid pilot projects sanctioned by the Ministry of Power (MoP) have been completed. These projects were shortlisted by the MoP in October 2012 and 11 of them are 50 per cent funded, while one (Smart Grid Knowledge Centre at Manesar) is 100 per cent funded by the MoP. The projects entailed the implementation of the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) along with functionalities such as outage management system (OMS), peak load management, power quality management, distributed generation and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

The impact assessment of the pilot projects has also been completed and the key takeaways include a reduction in aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses in project areas; the integration of the smart grid system with the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme in Tripura, Assam and West Bengal; along with the success of Radio Frequency and General Packet Radio Service as communication mediums, power line carrier was tested with dependable results; and remote connect/disconnect feature was also tested and deployed at some pilots. Further, “Smart Grid Readiness – Self Assessment Tool” has been developed for impact assessment of pilot projects.

Meanwhile, five smart grid projects are under various stages of development under the NSGM, covering 0.75 million consumers. These projects are being developed in sub-division 5 Chandigarh (Chandigarh city), Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala), Ranchi (Jharkhand) and Rourkela (Odisha). Under the NSGM, a framework document, a model Request for Proposal and a model Detailed Project Report have been released. Further, 19 state level project management units have been formed for the implementation and monitoring of smart grid projects and six states have issued smart grid regulations so far.

Smart metering

Smart metering is a key priority area for the government. Under the Saubhagya scheme, which ended in March 2019, over 26.4 million new consumers have been added to the distribution network in a span of 16 months. It is nearly impossible to conduct metering and meter reading in a timely manner for such a large base of consumers. Thus, the government is planning to automate the entire process through smart prepaid meters. With the prepaid facility, consumers will have the option to pay for the power they intend to consume in advance, benefitting them as well as the discoms. Further, technology will help in reducing AT&C losses.

The MoP has issued an advisory to all discoms to draw up a roadmap for switching to smart meters in the prepaid mode over a period of three years. However, the high capex requirement for smart meters is an impediment, given the current financial health of discoms. Energy Efficiency Services Limited (EESL) has made some progress in this regard and completed the installation of over 0.5 million smart meters across Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. EESL’s “pay as you save” model is likely to be helpful in this case. Under the model, EESL procures smart meters and services from the system integrator with 100 per cent investment, providing discoms the benefit of a zero upfront financial investment. The repayment to EESL is through the monetisation of energy savings, resulting from enhanced billing accuracy, saved meter reading costs and other improved efficiencies. EESL aims to retrofit 250 million conventional meters with their smart variants under the SMNP. Recently, EESL and the National Investment and Infrastructure Fund have formed a joint venture, IntelliSmart Infrastructure Private Limited, for the deployment of smart meters across the country.

Microgrids and energy storage

Microgrids or local energy grids with distributed generation sources, typically renewable, with control capabilities can provide a promising solution to India’s energy access problem. Microgrids can operate either in grid-connected or isolated modes but in India they are mainly being installed in areas where the grid has not penetrated or is not accessible.

The traditional portfolio of microgrid/ distributed generation technologies included reciprocating engines, microturbines, combustion gas turbines and mini-turbines. However, new and emerging technology options such as fuel cells, PVs, particularly rooftop solar PV and wind turbines are now proliferating rapidly. Microgrids have evolved over time, becoming much smarter and making extensive use of renewable sources and advanced technologies.

Microgrids are most efficient when they are complemented by energy storage and control systems. Energy storage systems (ESSs) play a significant role in addressing the issue of grid stability in renewable energy generation and are an attractive option for both grid-connected and off-grid renewable sources. Many private companies such as Sterling & Wilson and Wärtsilä have already announced their foray into the ESS segment. Recently, in November 2019, Tata Power and The Rockefeller Foundation created an arm, Tata Power Renewable Microgrids Limited, to set up 10,000 microgrids across India by 2026. Tata Power Renewable Microgrids will scale up an innovative microgrid model in collaboration with Smart Power India and the Institute for Transformative Technologies to provide clean power to nearly 5 million households in the country. The initiative is expected to assist the central government’s ongoing campaign to provide electricity to rural areas, by exploiting the potential of renewable microgrids to serve households. Tata Power Renewable Microgrid will be operated and managed by Tata Power.

Earlier, in February 2019, Tata Power, AES Corporation (US-based) and the Mitsubishi Corporation inaugurated India’s first grid-scale battery-based ESS in Delhi. The 10 MW grid-connected system, owned by AES and the Mitsubishi Corporation is expected to promote greater adoption of the grid-scale energy storage technology. This project is located at Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited’s substation in Rohini, Delhi and will provide grid stabilisation and better peak load management, besides adding system flexibility, enhancing reliability and protecting critical facilities for 2 million consumers served by the company.

New digital tools

Blockchain, AI and ML are the other key emerging technologies in the distribution segment. Blockchain is a distributed data processing technology, which enables all users participating in the network to distribute and store data. Applying blockchain technology to the smart grid will ensure secure management of the energy data and contribute to the development of the future smart energy industry. It could pave the way for sophisticated decentralised networks that manage the entire distributed energy value chain in a more disintermediated and efficient way. This includes the management of power generation and distribution, sales, billing, payments, innovative financing mechanisms, contract management, and trading and incentives. In the renewable energy segment, blockchain could enable local generators such as rooftop solar plant owners to sell power through peer-to-peer transactions. Although blockchain application is yet to be taken up on a large scale by the power sector, some pilots have been recently announced.

For instance, in November 2019, the Uttar Pradesh Electricity Regulatory Commission approved a pilot project for peer-to-peer power transactions from rooftop solar systems using blockchain-based technology. Under this pilot project, the fees for blockchain technology will be recovered in the aggregate revenue requirement of the concerned distribution licensee. By using this technology, participants will be able to transfer funds, settle trades, or vote without seeking the approval of the certifying authority. In the same month, BSES Rajdhani Power Limited announced a partnership with Power Ledger, a blockchain-based company headquartered in Australia, to launch trials for a peer-to-peer energy trading platform in Delhi. The platform will allow residents with rooftop solar installations to sell excess energy to their neighbours, instead of letting it flow back to the power grid. It aims to enable participants with an easier and cheaper access to renewable energy and for solar installation owners to monetise power. The trial will comprise 5-6 MW of the existing solar infrastructure and will be conducted in Dwarka, Delhi.

Other new emerging technologies such as AI and ML hold the potential to significantly transform the way power is generated and distributed. These can be used across the value chain, based on the needs and requirements of utilities as well as the desired outcome. AI and ML modules could be developed based on the analytics of the data collected by sensors installed in the system. For greater cost efficiency and network reliability, predictive maintenance will require algorithms based on large amounts of data available through internet of things, SCADA, OMS, static meters/AMI for fault prediction, and timely and targeted maintenance. Another critical application of digital analytics is fraud detection and revenue assurance.

Key issues and the way forward

Technology transition brings many benefits, but it also increases the risk of cyberthreats. In order to mitigate these risks, utilities need to increase awareness on cybersecurity and build strong technical and cyber resilience strategies. Going forward, utilities need to plan and implement clear technology roadmaps with well-defined targets in order to address various issues and challenges.

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