“Utilities must prepare a smart grid roadmap”

Interview with ISGF’s Reji Kumar Pillai

The pandemic amplified the adoption of digital technologies by power utilities, especially when keeping the lights on and getting revenues from customers became a challenge. The India Smart Grid Forum (ISGF), which was set up in 2010 as a public-private partnership initiative of the Ministry of Power for the accelerated development of smart grid technologies in the Indian power sector, has been working on a number of policies and programmes for the promotion of smart grids in the country. Reji Kumar Pillai, president, ISGF, and chairman, Global Smart Energy Federation, spoke to Power Line on the digital trends in the power space, the ISGF’s recent initiatives and the upcoming India Smart Utility Week (ISUW) 2021 being organised by the forum. Excerpts…

What are some of the promising technology trends in the sector that have been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic?

For a decade, the ISGF has been advocating for digitalisation in utilities. During the lockdown period, electric utilities, like all other organisations, quickly adapted to paperless and contactless operations. This alone has pushed forward the digitalisation process in utilities. These are the same organisations that insisted on hard copies with signatures and seals for everything. Covid-19 has advanced digitalisation in Indian utilities by at least five years. A level of automation and digitalisation that would have otherwise taken power utilities another decade will now happen in the next two to three years. Most processes have become paperless. The culture of remote working and the use of third-party-owned digital platforms for meetings and collaborations have instilled confidence in utilities to adopt cloud technologies and applications hosted on the cloud. Many systems that utilities used to buy earlier will now move to the services model and charge a quarterly fee. The fact is that utilities now have digital data of all their assets, monthly processes and operations. They have better visibility of what is going on and can deploy analytical tools to optimise their operations. This is a quantum leap from their paper-based operations in the pre-Covid era.

What should be the digital strategies for utilities in the new normal?

Utilities must continue with paperless operations and deploy new systems to normalise the emergency measures adopted. They should implement enterprise resource planning systems and migrate their existing systems to the cloud. They should ideally prepare a smart grid roadmap for full automation and digitalisation, and move forward according to a proper roadmap. If not a full smart grid roadmap, at least an IT and digitalisation roadmap must be prepared by all utilities. The Government of India has advised discoms to implement smart metering and go for the prepaid mode of operations. During the lockdown months, manual meter reading was not possible and utilities suffered hugely. Billing based on estimated consumption was disputed by customers in many places. Smart meter roll-out should be fast-tracked. The advent of smart meters will open up a host of opportunities for full digitalisation and optimisation of assets and operations.

What have been some of the recent initiatives taken by the ISGF to promote smart grid technologies?

The ISGF has been working on several fronts to advise utilities, conduct training programmes and advocate for change. We have completed a detailed study on the impact of electric vehicle (EV) charging on the distribution grid. We conducted this study by modelling 12 feeders at the 11 kV level, as well as the associated low tension lines, in Bengaluru city, where 117 EV chargers are installed. We studied the possible impact for various EV load and rooftop solar scenarios on these feeders in 2020, 2022 and 2025. The results indicate that for larger EV loads, there should be mitigation measures on the grid in terms of higher capacity distribution transformers, bigger size cables/wires and harmonic filters. The report is currently under discussion with the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company.

Another project that we have undertaken during the pandemic is peer-to-peer (P2P) trading of solar energy by customers with rooftop solar in Lucknow city, Uttar Pradesh. The trading takes place on a blockchain platform we have implemented in partnership with Power Ledger, Australia. We are currently implementing a similar P2P trading system on a pilot basis in Delhi as well. Trading is currently being undertaken through the regulatory sandbox approach. We are experimenting with different trading rules and will recommend the appropriate trading rules that are the most beneficial for all stakeholders to the regulator.

Last year, the ISGF prepared a framework for time-of-use (ToU) or real-time tariff for electricity in Gujarat. This work involved developing an advanced ToU tool that utilities and regulators can use to analyse different what-if scenarios by shifting different percentages of peak loads of customers to non-peak periods, thereby estimating how much they would impact the discoms’ revenues and power purchase costs, as well as the monthly bills of customers.

We are currently assisting discoms in Karnataka in preparing for smart meter roll-outs. We have also initiated another project to measure the impact of electric bus charging on the distribution grid. We will be installing advanced power quality meters at bus depots in Kolkata and Pune to capture the real-time impact of charging multiple buses. All of the projects mentioned above are first-of-their kind studies in the country.

We are also focusing on new areas such as electric cooking, district cooling systems, urban air mobility systems or passenger drones, replacement of diesel generator sets with lithium-ion batteries, and grid-integrated vehicles. We are in the process of installing EV charging stations in our office building to undertake vehicle-grid integration (or vehicle-to-building/grid) studies this year.

Another important work that we have done recently involved the identification of interconnections between the SAARC grid and the Gulf Cooperation Council grid, as well as the SAARC grid and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations grid. The last two ISUWs had roundtables on “Interconnections of Regional Grids in Asia”, which were attended by key stakeholders from all these regions. Plans for connecting Oman with Gujarat through an undersea high voltage, direct current link, and Manipur with Thailand through Bangladesh and Myanmar via an overhead transmission line, were unanimously accepted. This year, again, we have invited all the important stakeholders to discuss the next steps towards conducting feasibility studies for these interconnections. The ISGF is also actively participating in standardisation initiatives with the Bureau of Indian Standards, the International Electrotechnical Commission and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers across different domains.

During the lockdown, we trained over 1,000 persons from utilities, industry and academia on the following subjects:

  • Advanced metering infrastructure,
  • Cybersecurity for power systems,
  • EVs and charging infrastructure,
  • Artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics for utilities and smart cities, and
  • Blockchain applications for utilities.

These programmes, conducted on our digital platform, had participants from several countries. The recorded versions of these programmes are available on our platform, and people from around the world are regularly signing up to watch them.

We also conducted the fourth edition of our Distribution Utility Meet in November 2020 on the digital platform, very successfully. So, the lockdown had a minimum impact on ISGF’s activities.

What will be the key highlights and focus areas for ISUW 2021? 

ISUW 2021 is focused on the evolving technology trends in the power sector. We will have sessions on:

Innovations in Utilities during the Pandemic, Regulatory Support for Revival of Utilities, Cyber Security for Digital Utilities, Business Models for Energy Storage Systems, Disaster (and Pandemic) Resilient Utilities and Cities, New Revenue Opportunities for Discoms, and Disruptive Technologies and Innovations. We will have special plenary sessions on the new Electricity Rules on Customer Protection, and Grid-Integrated Vehicles. This year, we have scheduled roundtables on Electric Cooking, Digital Architecture and System Integration for Smart Metering, 5G for Smart Utilities and Smart Cities, Urban Air Mobility Systems, and Interconnection of Regional Grids in Asia. We will also have focused workshops on District Cooling Systems, Live Line Maintenance, and Blockchain Applications for Utilities, besides smart grid workshops with the European Union, the US and Sweden. We had an overwhelming response to our call for technical papers, of which the top 30 will be presented at the event. ISUW 2021 will also feature parallel sessions on Water Distribution and City Gas Distribution, including Green Hydrogen. The India City Gas Distribution Forum, an initiative of the ISGF, will be launched at ISUW 2021.


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