Evolution of the Sector: Moving towards a digital, sustainable and renewables future

Moving towards a digital, sustainable and renewables future

By Vimal Kejriwal, Managing Director and CEO, KEC International Limited

India continues to be a force to re­ckon with in the global energy ec­onomy. We are the third-largest producer of electricity in the wor­ld, with an installed power generation capacity that has grown at a healthy 11 per cent compound an­­nual growth rate (CAGR) over the past decade to 390 GW at present. It is expected to touch 620 GW by 2026-27. Transmission line and substation capacities have also grown at a steady pace over the past decade at a healthy CAGR of around 6 per cent and 10 per cent respectively. Energy consumption has in­creased at a rapid pace and has more than doubled since 2000, powered by a growing population and rapid economic growth. According to reports, India is expected to see the largest increase in energy demand over the next 20 years for any country worldwide.

As we look back upon a decade or two to delve into the reasons behind this growth, a few key drivers and trends emerge, which have collectively played a crucial role in the evolution of the power sector. The integration of five regional grids, conceptualised in the early 1990s, to establish the National Grid was a landmark achievement in the Indian power sector. Upon completion in December 2013, it paved the way for a vibrant electricity market, facilitating trading of power across regions, optimal utilisation of scarce natural resources, and most importantly, achievement of the “One Nation, One Grid, One Frequency” goal, and further accelerating the growth of the sector.

Another growth driver for the transmission infrastructure was the opening up of the transmission sector for private participation in 1998. This move garnered significant interest from private players due to the favourable risk-return profile of power transmission projects, and placed high importance on ahead-of-time delivery, quality, cost and safety parameters. The share of private players in terms of total line length has more than doubled in the past 10 years, whereas their share in substation capacity has increased more than eightfold. The central government continues to award a significant chunk of new projects through the tariff-based competitive bidding (TBCB) route, which benefits engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) players such as KEC that possess mature processes, global supply chains, deep engineering and execution capabilities, cost competitiveness, and a proven track re­cord for ahead-of-schedule deliveries. Over the years, KEC has collaborated with almost every private player in the TBCB space to build the power infrastructure across the country.

With the increase in demand for power transmission and the high cost of resolving right-of-way issues, the emphasis has shifted to the transfer of a large quantum of power through an optimum corridor. This has resulted in an increase in the voltage levels of transmission lines. From up to 132/220 kV levels in the 1970s, India advanced to introduce its first 400 kV transmission line in 1977, the first 500 kV HVDC line in 1990, the first 765 kV line in 2000, and the first 800 kV HVDC line in 2016. A major challenge in this journey was the availability of reliable players with superior design, engineering, testing and construction capabilities to match the growing demand and focus on innovation and timely delivery. Our teams at KEC have been at the forefront of this revolution and have partn­er­ed with several governments to deliver high voltage lines across tough terrains, weather and political conditions, not just in India but around the globe. The company is currently contributing to the development and construction of 1,200 kV D/C towers for a prestigious ultra-high voltage alternating cu­rr­ent project in India.

On the substation front, technologies continue to advance and increase capabilities and reliability while reducing capital and maintenance costs. There has been significant growth in the deployment of technologically advanced gas-insulated substations (GIS) and hybrid substations in place of conventional air-insulated substations (AIS). Compact and modular GIS-based equipment offers economical solutions for the extension of existing AIS and upgradation of existing installations to higher voltage levels. KEC has built deep expertise and has made an indelible mark on this front over the years throu­gh several complex AIS and GIS substation projects, including India’s highest substations at Drass and Kargil for Power Grid Corpo­ration of India Limited (Powergrid), at an altitude of more than 11,500 feet, and the 765 kV GIS spread over nine levels in the hilly terrain of Uttarakhand. Automa­tion and digitalisation are the other drivers of substation technology. The emerging substation automation standard being adopted globally, IEC 61850, has already been deployed by Powergrid in more than 100 substations to ensure reliable power flow and rectify issues swiftly. Advanced technologies such as static synchronous compensators, static var compensators, smart grids, modular substations and mobile substations are being seen as the fu­ture of substations globally for efficient management of power systems.

New and innovative construction technologies have also positively impacted the efficiency of transmission projects over the last several years, with digital being the current focal point. De­ve­lopers and contractors such as KEC are deploying leading-edge digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, computer vision, geospatial, building information modelling, im­mersive solutions, internet of things, advanced analytics and robotic process automation, which are resulting in a quantum leap in productivity, improved estimation accuracy and en­han­­ced compliance with processes. We are seeing increasing adoption of drones and LiDAR technology in stringing power conductors, surveys and inspection, which is cutting down stringing time and enhancing safety in operations. The pandemic forced a significant part of our workforce to operate remotely. At KEC, we converted this challenge into an opportunity and developed a state-of-the-art project monitoring plat­form, which enabled various project teams to obtain precise updates from sites on a daily basis.

The Government of India has made remarkable progress in providing access to electricity across the country, while implementing a range of energy market reforms and policies. The government’s focus on attaining “Power for All” has significantly accelerated capacity addition in the country on all fronts. Prioritising universal household access to electricity has been a significant enabler as over 900 million people have gained electricity connections in the past two decades. This has also enabled the country to achieve the remarkable distinction of jumping 115 positions, from 137th in 2014 to 22nd in 2020, on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business – “Getting Electricity” rankings. In addition, fast-paced urbanisation in areas such as housing, roads, urban transport and water supply, and industrialisation under initiatives such as Make in In­dia and “Atmanirbhar Bharat, along with an increased fo­cus on the power sector under the National Infrastructure Pi­pe­­­line, have also boosted the power sector significantly.

The Indian electricity sector is on the cusp of a solar revolution. The country plans to expand its renewable energy

ca­pacity to over 450 GW by 2030, from the current levels of about 100 GW. These ambitious renewables targets are al­re­a­dy acting as a catalyst for grid expansion to enable the flow of renewable energy into the national grid network, leading to the transformation of the power sector. The Government of India’s focus on increasing the capacity of green energy corridor projects and setting up ultra-mega solar power parks and solar and wind energy zones in renewable energy-rich states is a step in the right direction. These initiatives, combined with timely implementation and execution, have the potential to significantly accelerate India’s clean energy transition.

There is also a growing consensus that sustainability and the environmental, social and governance aspects of doing business are critical for long-term resilience and success of an organisation in today’s challenging and disruptive world, especially in the power arena. At KEC, we have developed a strategic sustainability roadmap for the next five years to lay down our aspirations and action plan for conducting our business in a more sustainable and responsible manner. Some of our key focus areas are reduction of hazardous waste generation; use of cutting-edge design technology for optimisation of the wei­ght and size of transmission towers and cables, leading to lower consumption of steel, zinc and aluminium; adoption of a water-positive approach to bring down the overall water foot­print; and minimisation of energy consumption on our journey towards decarbonisation.

It is very encouraging to see Indian power sector companies becoming true Indian multinationals, with a presence across continents. Home-grown Indian companies are fulfilling the global demand for world-class power infrastructure equipment and have set up or acquired state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and the UAE, apart from India. Indian EPC contractors, such as KEC, are helping build the power infrastructure across more than 100 countries in the remotest corners of the world, and are executing complex projects in tough terrains, extreme weather conditions, and politically sensitive as well as developed regions around the world. Indeed, the growth of the Indian power sector has enabled Indian players to make an indelible mark in the international power sphere. Together, our industry is laying the foundation for long-term prosperity and greater energy security across nations, vital for the future development of economies. A matter of great pride for India! N