“Urgent need for network upgradation”: Interview with Powerlinks Transmission Limited’s Kiran Gupta

Interview with Powerlinks Transmission Limited’s Kiran Gupta

Powerlinks Transmission Limited, a joint venture between Tata Power Company Limited and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, which operates the Tala transmission project, has been focusing on adopting new and emerging technologies to optimise operations and maintenance (O&M) practices and improve performance. It has digitalised the patrolling process and is using drones and artificial intelligence-based solutions for safe and sustainable operations. In a recent interview with Power Line, Kiran Gupta, chief executive officer and executive director, Powerlinks Transmission Limited, spoke about the company’s key priorities and focus areas as well as the challenges it has faced. Excerpts….

What are your views on the current state of the power transmission segment in the country? 

The Indian electricity grid is becoming increasingly more complex and, therefore, grid operations and transmission planning need to evolve significantly. With growing cross-border electricity trade – which has doubled in the past six years to reach 18 BUs in 2021 – the associated transmission infrastructure also needs to be scaled up. The government’s increasing focus on renewables and the target of achieving 500 GW by 2030 are also creating a need for a strong and stable transmission network.

The transmission segment has witnessed phenomenal growth over the years in terms of network length/capacity and technology. The formation of the national grid, increase in interregional capacity from near zero to over 110,000 MW and the green energy corridors have been important developments in the sector. Going forward, with changes in the power mix and the growing focus on distributed generation and transport electrification, there is a strong need for a safe and reliable transmission network.

The other aspect that needs attention is the development of intra-state transmission and sub-transmission systems. Recently, transmission has been redefined and 33 kV now falls under sub-transmission. Additionally, long-term, short-term and medium-term open access-based general network access would give another push to robust and sustainable transmission infrastructure.

With a lifespan of around 35 years, transmission network maintenance has been viewed as a stable task. But with the devastating climate changes, cyclones and wind storms being seen in recent years, holistic, collective reforms are required. As of January 2022, the total transmission line length (at the 220 kV and above level) stands at 453,141 ckt. km, across varied geographies and tough terrain.

With tariff-based competitive bidding in the picture, the transmission segment has seen huge participation from private players in the past decade. Such competition lowers tariffs, reduces the burden on government finances and encourages the use of advanced technology to improve process efficiency at reduced operating costs.

What have been the operational and financial highlights for Powerlinks Transmission in the past one to two years?

Powerlinks Transmission Limited started operations in 2006. Post successful construction of the 1,166 km double circuit transmission line from Siliguri in West Bengal to Mandola in Uttar Pradesh, the entire line along with the towers is being maintained through seven site offices (in Siliguri, Purnea, Muzaffarpur, Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Bareilly and Mandola) in West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Powerlinks’ key operational practices include regular line patrolling with checks on critical parameters/photography of the line components and thermographic scanning to detect hotspots; condition assessment and monitoring techniques to help optimise maintenance intervals and reduce system outages; tree pruning and right-of-way (RoW) clearance for safe corridor-basis patrolling; and use of emergency restoration systems (ERS) for quick restoration in the event of any disasters.

Additionally, owing to the emerging need for new technologies, digitalisation, standardisation, effective monitoring, cost optimisation and safety, the teams have been focusing on various initiatives to ensure safe and sustainable operations. The major operational highlights include a 100 per cent safety performance index with zero fatalities during line maintenance; high line availability parameters across different regions of the transmission line; successful completion of tower erection and line stringing capex project works (approximately Rs 50  million) including pile foundation of the 400 kV D/C Kishanganj-Purnea line in Bihar amidst the Covid lockdown and major RoW challenges and heavy floods; and tower revetment works on the Purnea-Muzaffarpur line to strengthen the tower foundation following heavy floods in Bihar.

In terms of financial performance, the company has seen increasing revenues and profit after tax based on efforts to generate additional income and various cost optimisation initiatives.

What are the key initiatives and emerging technology interventions being undertaken by Powerlinks Transmission?

Some of the technological interventions at Powerlinks are:

  • Drones for operational and safety excellence: Safety is an integral need for O&M and for such networks, drones ensure the best, safest working conditions for all employees. With drones, we can eliminate exceptions and focus on 100 per cent delivery. Be it patrolling of infrastructure located in rivers or hidden in dense forests, accessibility is possible with precise data and image capturing.
  • Image analytics with AI: Data capturing remains incomplete until insightful information is extracted and is traceable and replicable. Thereby, artificial intelligence (AI) is the key for using drone technology as an effective tool for safe and sustainable O&M. An internally developed IT platform with developed use cases such as bird’s nest, loose jumper and broken insulator based on the captured data is the enabler for adopting a complete and mature AI model while using drone technology.
  • Condition monitoring through the Patrosoft App:  With the Patrosoft App, structured advanced tower scheduling has become easy, routine format filling has been digitalised and there is a real-time check on tower patrolling through a centralised dashboard with data analytics for optimised vehicle running and O&M expenses.
  • Motorised tree pruner: This is the most simple and effective tool a transmission line maintenance engineer can ask for. It is swift and easy to use, and saves the time and manpower required for tree lopping. Being lightweight, it reduces operator fatigue, thus increasing efficiency. It eliminates the risk of working at a height of up to 4 metres from the ground for tree pruning.
  • DigiTRIP for system-based breakdown monitoring: Tripping process automation with real-time monitoring across all seven sites in remotely spread locations enables timely restoration of faults, thus enhancing line availability with complete safety. The data is available for analysis and future best practice adoption in the process.

What are the biggest issues and challenges facing the company and how are these being addressed?

Safe O&M for an ageing network within approved budget:

  • System-based patrolling of lines with analytics for prioritisation and cost optimisation for regular O&M across seven sites.
  • Cost saving initiatives at all sites to ensure expenses stay within the allocated budget.
  • Use of opportunity shutdowns to address faults and reduce outage costs.

Unauthorised construction in and around the transmission corridor (RoW):

  • Regular line monitoring/use of drones to avoid any unauthorised construction.
  • Awareness sessions with villagers regarding the construction of extra high voltage transmission lines in the vicinity.
  • Liasing with the district administration and other stakeholders, highlighting the need for a clear corridor and the adverse impacts.
  • Community connect/CSR programmes in surrounding villages.

Risk from natural calamities, heavy floods for line availability:

  • 100 per cent inspection of vulnerable locations with drones.
  • Timely strengthening of the network with pile foundation/tower erection works based on regulatory approvals.
  • Regular upkeep of ERS at the regional level for use during emergency situations.

What are Powerlinks Transmission’s key focus areas and priorities?

We are proud to be a transmission licensee having a network connecting the north-eastern states via India’s chicken neck corridor, Siliguri. This would be of strategic importance to us as the north-eastern states have a huge hydroelectric potential of about 58 GW, of which only 2 GW has been harnessed as of 2021 and 2 GW is under construction. The remaining 90 per cent of the hydroelectric power is yet to be worked on. Also, with the adoption of new technologies and digitalisation, processes can be easily replicated for such projects in the future, with the key learnings.

At present, due to the continuous changing of the course of the river in the Bihar region, towers are likely to face severe soil erosion in the near future. Thus, based on due diligence, pile foundation and tower erection works have been planned in line with regulatory needs for the coming years.

What is your long-term outlook for the power sector?

Keeping sustainability at the core, the Indian power sector will see large investments and a doubling of generation capacity by 2030 (with renewables contributing more than 50 per cent) to meet the nation’s energy appetite as electrification and living standards grow. With the installed generation capacity increasing, there will be an urgent need for transmission network upgradation, as the new transmission corridor would not only be cost-intensive but could also face major challenges relating to RoW and dynamic laws/regulations.