Greening the Grid: Key to meeting India’s renewable energy goals

Key to meeting India’s renewable energy goals

By Pitamber Shivnani, MD and CEO, GE T&D India Limited

Covid-19 has altered the world, but it has not stopped the steady mar­ch of renewable energy. In fact, during the pandemic, the segment grew faster than it has done in the past. The world added more than 260 GW of renewable energy capa­city in 2020, up nearly 50 per cent from that in the previous year, ac­c­ording to the International Rene­wable Energy Agency (IRENA). “Mo­re than 80 per cent of all new electricity capacity added last year was renewables based, with solar and wind accounting for 91 per cent of new renewables,” IRENA reported.

This is good news for the planet, but the energy transition to low-carbon electricity sources involves much more than building new wind and solar farms. We need a smart, flexible and resilient grid that can allow electricity flow in two directions – from power plants to homes and businesses, and also from rooftop solar panels back to the grid, among others. And what happens to power supply in a few years, when millions of mo­torists come home from work and plug in their electric vehicles at the same time? These questions have complex answers that the industry is now opening to.

With a persistent focus on decarbonisation and round-the-clock power, the Indian energy landscape is also undergoing significant positive transformation. India is taking great strides towards renewable energy generation and has committed to more than double its non-fossil fuel target to 450 GW by 2030. The country has already achieved a milestone of 100 GW installed renewable energy capacity, as of September 2021. India has set a target to reduce its carbon emissions by 40 per cent as committed at the Paris Agreement in 2015 and has achie­ved around 25 per cent already.

Immediate action is necessary to achieve climate change mitigation goals and address the “energy trilemma” of affordable, reliable and sustainable energy. This requires rapid integration of more renewable energy into the grid, but it has the following set of challenges…

Making renewable energy despatchable

Unlike conventional fuel, renewable energy is not always available; the wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining. For renewable energy to be despatched when needed, the ability to store it is critical.

Immediate action is necessary to achieve climate change mitigation goals and address the “energy trilemma” of  affordable, reliable and sustainable energy. This requires rapid integration of more renewable energy into the grid.

Maintaining grid stability

When you flip the light switch, the light must come on regardless of its power source because behind the scenes, a modern, reliable and resilient grid is in operation. The grid requires “in­ertia” to maintain stability. Fossil fuel energy is produced using generators, which create inertia. However, with renewable energy, inertia must be recreated with power electronics or other technology, such as high voltage direct current, FACTS (flexible alternating current transmission system), STATCOM (static synchronous compensator) and synchronous condensers.

Managing the grid’s increasing complexity

In the past, energy came mainly from big power stations. The grid today integrates energy from multiple directions and so­urces – from power plants to offshore wind farms to solar panels. Intelligent controls are needed to ensure smooth functioning of the grid and to manage all this capacity. The need of the hour is to adopt digital and automation grid technologies that enable the grid to continue to be highly reliable but also resilient, so that it actually becomes even better performing, more energy efficient and renewables-centric.

Transmitting energy to demand centres from afar

Large-scale generation of renewable energy will take place in remote locations where sun, wind and free land are available, as well as offshore. There is an increase in distributed energy sources (DERs) – small-scale units of power generation such as wind farms that operate locally and are connected to a larger power grid at the distribution level. Ensuring smooth transmission of this energy to demand centres will take many years and require strong coordination between renewable energy de­­­velopers and utilities to ensure timely expansion and re­in­forcement of the grid. This requires adoption of technologies that can intelligently move electricity over long distances with optimised transmission costs and minimal losses.

The grid today integrates energy from multiple directions and sources – from power plants to offshore wind farms to solar panels. Intelligent controls are needed to manage all this capacity.

Predicting demand in an increasingly unpredictable world

In the past, consumer behaviour was well understood. Today, with the electrification of cars and heating, and with more consumers producing their own energy, demand is becoming more difficult to predict. That is why grid operators require more sophisticated predictive technology. They also need technology to balance demand and supply better.

Decarbonising the grid

While the grid is set to play a crucial role in the integration of renewable energy, it needs to switch to greener technology. One of the main challenges relates to the use of SF6, the wor­ld’s most potent greenhouse gas, in high voltage equipment found in substations. This insulating and switching gas is used by 80 per cent of the transmission industry and has been its gas of choice for the past 50 years due to the lack of a better alternative. One alternative to SF6 is GE’s g³ gas (pronounced “g cubed”), an insulating and switching gas that reduces the global warming potential of SF6 by more than 99 per cent, while retaining the same insulating and switching qualities. It also allows electric substations to keep the same compact di­mensions and performance as traditional SF6 equipment. The g³ gas is the result of more than a decade of research and development conducted by GE’s Grid Solutions in collaboration with the 3M Company.

Another challenge relates to the extensive use of copper for substations – the grid’s unsung heroes that toil in obscurity to keep our homes lit and our phones charged. Digital substations that replace copper with optical fibre and provide nu­merous other benefits that can help us address this problem. Yet another challenge relates to the use of mineral oil in power transformers, which is not readily biodegradable; so, why not gradually shift to green power transformers that use natural ester instead of mineral oils?

We believe that the energy industry, policymakers, customers and consumers – working together – can address these challenges and accelerate the transition to a clean energy future and, in the process, enable a cleaner, better world. Rene­w­able energy is one of the promising industries to be in to­day, as the world is relying on us for a greener future and we need to play our role.