Interview with Reji Kumar Pillai

“Technology interventions needed to upgrade networks”

Discoms need proper smart grid roadmaps to undertake modernisation, believes Reji Kumar Pillai, president, India Smart Grid Forum (ISGF) and chairman, Global Smart Grid Federation. In a recent interview with Power Line, he spoke about the key trends, issues and challenges in the smart grids space. Excerpts…

What are the highlights of the upcoming India Smart Utility Week (ISUW) 2020?

ISUW 2020 is shaping up very well with 354 speakers and 50 exhibitors from around the globe. There are 36 conference sessions including 13 thematic sessions, four special plenaries on select topics, five bilateral workshops and seven parallel sessions/roundtables, besides four tracks of master classes and an IEC-IEEE World Energy Standardization Coordination Workshop. The main themes of ISUW 2020 are “Towards A Net Zero Energy Power Sector” and “Towards A Carbon Neutral Transport Sector”. The event will be addressed by some of the world’s leading thought leaders, subject matter experts, and policy and regulatory leaders. Seniormost government officials from central ministries and state ministries, dealing with power, transport and smart city domains, will be attending the sessions. The European Union (EU) will be showcasing select smart grid projects implemented successfully in Europe in the EU pavilion. Besides the EU delegation, there will be country delegations from France, Sweden, Switzerland and the US. Unfortunately, the Chinese delegation had to cancel its trip due to travel restrictions. We are excited about the parallel sessions we started for city gas distribution and water distribution utilities. The ISGF is advocating collaborations amongst the electricity, gas and water distribution utilities, and the sharing of assets and operational tools to bring down the cost of doing business. The sharing of customer data and GIS maps, common billing and payment systems, common call centres, and common tools for outage detection and field crew management, etc. are some of the areas that are beneficial to these utilities as well as customers. This idea is gaining acceptability in smart cities, where different utilities are collaborating with one another. We also have the fourth edition of the ISGF Innovation Awards, which will recognise and promote outstanding innovations by utilities, technology providers and start-ups. Overall, ISUW 2020 will be an enriching experience for all stakeholders attending it. I wish to thank all the supporting ministries, utilities, technology companies and our associates, and above all Team ISGF, who were working relentlessly to make ISUW 2020 a grand success.

What have been some of the promising developments in the smart grids’ space in the past one year?

India has achieved many important and strategic milestones in the recent past. The SAUBHAGYA programme brought light into the life of over 100 million people by electrifying about 26.3 million homes in 17 months. Now, the biggest challenge is to ensure 24×7 supply of quality power to all households. Technology interventions are needed to upgrade the medium- and low-voltage networks most optimally in order to meet this objective. On the renewable energy front also, the country has delivered an outstanding performance globally. More than 87 GW of renewable energy has been installed and these assets are being utilised efficiently. The national merit order dispatch system being introduced and the move to bring the shutter closing time to 5 minutes from 15 minutes are very bold steps to develop a power market in line with international best practices. The Government of India has recently mandated prepaid smart meters for all customers, which implies over 250 million smart meters in the next three to four years. A smart meter with two-way communication can be operated in prepaid or postpaid mode. The ISGF recommendation is to incentivise those who opt for the prepaid mode and increase the penalties for defaulters who are on a postpaid regime and do not pay their bills on time. Certain areas or feeders that have high AT&C losses or payment defaults can be mandated for prepaid only. This would minimime the regulatory challenges in smart meter implementation. There will be enormous challenges in smart meter roll-outs as none of the state-owned discoms has a proper (utility-wide) billing system that can be integrated with a state-of-the-art meter data management system scalable to millions of meters. All state discoms have three or more billing systems – RAPDRP billing system, HT billing system and non-RAPDRP billing system. This must be addressed on priority and proper billing systems must be implemented along with a smart meter roll-out. Another important addition to the grid is electric vehicles (EVs) and EV charging stations, which require proper planning and distribution grid strengthening. The biggest of all is the new renewable energy target of 450 GW by 2030.

What are some of the key ongoing initiatives of the ISGF?

In 2019, the ISGF published the Energy Storage System Roadmap for India, which was prepared in close coordination with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Ministry of Power, Central Electricity Authority and NITI Aayog. This roadmap estimated a requirement of about 17 GWh of batteries for the integration of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022. It was supported by the Mac Arthur Foundation and we undertook this in collaboration with India Energy Storage Alliance (IESA). The ISGF was engaged by PT PLN, Indonesia’s state-owned electricity utility, to prepare a smart grid roadmap for Indonesia. PT PLN is the world’s second largest electricity utility (after the State Grid Corporation of China) with an installed generation capacity of 61 GW and a customer base of 72 million. We have successfully completed that assignment in coordination with Universitas Indonesia and PJCI, Indonesia’s smart grid association. The roadmap has been approved by PT PLN.

At present, we are preparing a time-of-use or real-time pricing framework for electricity in Gujarat, which is supported by the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation (SSEF), and are executing this project in partnership with the Florence School of Regulation (FSR). We are also doing detailed planning studies for Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited for the roll-out of 162 EV charging stations in its service area; this project is also supported by the SSEF. The ISGF assisted the West Bengal Transport Corporation in the successful roll-out of 80 electric buses under FAME I, including the setting up of charging stations at 22 locations. We are also assisting it in the roll-out of 150 electric buses allotted under FAME II. In addition, we have been awarded a pilot project by Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation Limited to set up a peer-to-peer (P2P) energy trading platform through smart contracts on blockchain for buying and selling rooftop solar power amongst customers. This is the first-of-its-kind effort in India. The ISGF is executing this project in partnership with Power Ledger, Australia.

What are the major issues and challenges hampering the roll-out of smart grids in India?

As I often say, our transmission grid is already smarter than that in most developed countries. The main issues are in the medium-voltage and low-voltage networks of state-owned discoms. They need to have proper smart grid roadmaps to undertake grid modernisation in a planned and phased manner. That is missing and they often have leadership challenges. The managing directors of discoms change very often (an average tenure being less than two years). In most states, the managing directors and chairmen are the principal secretaries in charge of energy departments, who also change frequently. Typically, the overlap between the chairman and the managing director is less than 18 months or maximum four-five board meetings. Nothing strategic can be achieved in such a framework. Training and capacity building for adopting new technologies are still inadequate in discoms. There is a need to have a permanent cadre in discoms for digital technologies. The list is long and known to all, but no solution is in sight.

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