Interview with Abhay Choudhary: “Our grid is stronger and more stable than any other grid in the world”

Abhay Choudhary, Director (Projects), Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (POWERGRID)

In a recent interview with Power Line, Abhay Choudhary, Director (Projects), Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (POWERGRID), shared his views on the current state of the power transmission segment, the new and emerging requirements, and unresolved issues. He also discussed POWERGRID’s recent achievements, future plans and priority areas. Edited excerpts…

What is your assessment of the current state of the power transmission segment?

Transmission is a key element in the po­wer sector chain and is often called the enabler of the power system, which has generation on one side and distribution on the other. India has the largest unified grid in the world, which is run on a single frequency. This provides grid stability to the power system. Our grid is stronger and more stable than any other grid in the world; power can flow bet­we­en any two corners of the country – from Arunachal Pradesh to Kerala – without any constraint. This has resulted in a single short-term pricing throughout the country. We can confidently say that the transmission segment is very heal­thy at present.

How are the power transmission system req­ui­re­ments changing with the growing share of renewables?

With the growing integration of renewable energy into the grid, the need for dynamic compensation has also increa­sed significantly. In the evening hours, when solar power is significantly lower, an alternative source of power generation has to come online within 15-30 minutes. During this transition, dynamic compensation of MVAr (reactive po­wer) is required to stabilise the voltage. Therefore, we are deploying a large number of STATCOMs, which have the capability to regulate MVAr in milliseconds. Earlier, we had reactors, which would take several minutes to regulate voltage, but now we can stabilise voltage in milliseconds.

What are the unresolved issues in the power sector?

There is a shortage of equipment manufacturers in the power transmission segment. Almost every transmission developer is facing this challenge. There is a scarcity of EHV power transformer manufacturers. The surge in the cost of cold rolled grain-oriented steel has resulted in an increase in transfor­mer costs. Fur­ther, the delivery time of transformers is high. Setting up renewable energy plan­ts in 12 months requires timely delivery of transformers, but transformer manufacturers are reluctant to even send quotations for such tight timelines; they need a longer timeline. The demand for transformers has beco­me very high, while the number of manufacturers is limited. Similarly, we have few GIS manufacturers, especially at the 765 kV level. As a result, the competition is low, and both stipulated delivery time and equipment costs are high. For high-voltage direct current (HVDC), we have only three manufacturers – Hitachi, GE and Siemens – which are already overbooked in Europe and the western markets. There are issues of low competition, tight timelines and high prices in the HVDC segment. Hence, timely supply of GIS, HVDC equipment and transformers is a big challenge for the transmission segment.

“Our top priority is to maintain the lion’s share in the transmission business while commissioning projects on time.”

What are some of the key upcoming HVDC projects? What are the challenges in their im­plementation?

HVDC is a niche area in transmission with only three players, all of which are overbooked. Hence, setting up an HVDC system in three years is difficult. There are at least four to five HVDC projects in the next five to six years – Leh-Kaithal, Bhadla-Fatehpur, Barmer-Jabalpur and two HVDC systems  from the Khavda area in Gujarat. Some of these are already bid out, and some are at the planning stage.

HVDC projects require more time. People may take advantage of tight ti­melines. The absorption of HVDC is not a problem at all as we have a large pool of trained manpower that can manage and operate HVDC technology. Renew­able energy integration is happening ac­ross the globe, with HVDC projects be­ing awarded worldwide. We should give enough time, identify players and systems, and ensure competitive prices for executing HVDC projects.

What is your assessment of the current competitive landscape under TBCB for the transmission segment? What is the outlook?

There is cut throat competition in tariff-based competitive bidding (TBCB), with extremely low margins. Only time can tell how many and for how long transmission developers will be able to sustain themselves in such a competitive scenario. Fortunately, POWERGRID has won more than 50 per cent of the bids in 2022-23. Since most of the projects are linked to renewable energy generators, we must complete them before the generators – the mandate is that transmission should come before generation.

All TBCB projects have four to five bidders. However, in projects with tight timelines and right-of-way (RoW) , issues, there is less participation. Deve­lo­­pers are well aware that RoW is beco­ming difficult, and delivery of transformers and reactors in less than a year or 15 months does not invite many res­ponses. When we have a time period of more than 24 months, there are five to six bidders. While there is competition in shorter timeline projects, but there are fewer bidders. We, at POWEGRID, aim to finish projects on time and maintain the lion’s share of the transmission business.

What have been the key achievements of POWERGRID in the past year or so?

We have been able to win more than 50 per cent of the TBCB projects bid in 2022-23 — a big achievement for us. We also completed a few critical, important projects such as Rajasthan Phase II Part-F of the Bikaner-Khetri-Bhiwadi system in Rajasthan, enabling long-term open access for several renewable energy generators. At the interstate level, we completed the reconfiguration of the 765 kV D/C Bhuj PS-Lakadia line to establish the 765 kV D/C Bhuj II-Lakadia line as well as the 765 kV D/C Bhuj-Bhuj II line, the 400 kV D/C Jeerat-Subhashgram li­ne, the 400 kV D/C Lower Subhansiri-Bis­wa­nath Chariyali Line I, the long-pending 220 kV D/C Panchkula-Chan­digarh line, the 400 kV D/C Mohin­der­garh-Bhiwani line and the digital sub­station at Panchkula. At the intra-state level, we completed the Bhind-Guna sys­tem (Madhya Pradesh), the 400 kV D/C Simbhavali-Meerut line (Uttar Pradesh) and the Rampur-Sambhal system (Uttar Pradesh), and commissioned several transformers and reactors across critical substations.

“We have been able to win more than 50 percent of TBCB projects awarded in the past 12 months – a big achievement for us.”

What are some of the noteworthy technologies that POWERGRID has adopted? What have been its key benefits?

We have digitalised the project monitoring system. Thus, we can get the live status from substation and transmission construction sites. Over the next two years, we are working on a system that will provide live feeds for each pit dug for a transmission tower, allowing re­mo­t­e monitoring of tower construction and erection. In areas with a large vegetation cover or orchards between two to­wers, we use drones to set up transmission systems. We have been using extension towers in orchard areas, and drones to pull the wires – we first pull the pilot wire through which we pull the other conductors. Obviously, people do not allow us to cut down costly orchards, or they claim hefty compensation.

On the construction front, we are going to further digitalise monitoring. We are using drones for monitoring construction projects and execution. On the op­erational front, we are monitoring transformers online. In case of any faults de­ve­loping in transformers, we receive live feeds. We have thousands of transformers across the nation and have been able to grade their health, as per our indexing system – green, red and yellow zones. Moreover, we have developed app-ba­sed  transmission line patrolling. So, the patrolling person, with the mobile application, has to mandatorily go near the tower to be able to operate and ensure that everything is in order. These are a few things that we have introduced, leading to high levels of transmission li­ne availability. In the near future, we in­tend to use robots for substation inspection, for which we have established collaborations with certain IITs. Further­more, we are considering the use of dro­nes capable of carrying substantial loads of 100 kg (cement bags, towers, etc.) fr­om one remote area to another.

What are POWERGRID’s top priorities and key focus areas going forward?

Our top priority is to maintain the lion’s share in the transmission business while commissioning projects on time. We want to increase our presence in the sm­art metering segment. We already have an MoU with the Gujarat government for the installation of over 6 million meters. We intend to install about 10 million sm­art meters in the near future. Further­more, we are moving on with data and voice communication with neighbouring countries. We have the licence for operating within the country, and have also received the licence for communication (using our overhead optical fibres) with neighbouring countries.

What is the company’s capex target for the next two to three years?

Our capex target is Rs 88 billion for 2023-24, Rs 115 billion for the next year, and definitely greater than Rs 100 billion for the year after that. There will be an in­crease in capex for the next three to four years to cater to the massive renewable energy capacity addition till 2030.

What is your outlook for the power transmission segment?

We have transmission projects planned up to 2032, commensurate with generation, integration of renewables as well as interstate and intra-state requirements. The estimated national capex requirement is about Rs 1,165 billion in the in­terstate transmission segment; about Rs 370 billion at the intra-state level; and about Rs 100 billion for cross-border net­­works with our neighbouring countries. With respect to international projects, particularly in African countries, we are looking at investments of Rs 75 billion. So, altogether, by 2032, the estimated capex requirement of the power transmission segment will be around Rs 1.71 trillion, and we hope to acquire at least 40 per cent share in that.

“We want to increase our presence in the smart metering segment and intend to install about 10 million smart meters in the near future.”

What is your perspective on cross-border in­ter­connections and the recently announced transnational front?

We already have cross-border interconnections with Bhutan, Nepal and Bang­la­desh. We want to now have an HVDC link with Sri Lanka. We need to reach Sri Lanka via the Indian Ocean – through either submarine cables or overhead lines. We are preparing DPRs for both. Submarine cables are a bit costly but more reliable, thus enhancing availability. Still, we hope that the cost of landed power in Sri Lanka will be competitive, delivering cheaper power than their current arrangements. Similarly, we intend to lay submarine cables up to Singapore directly or through the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. How­ever, there are challenges associated with the length of cables and the depth of the seabed. We were also in discussions with Myanmar, which currently has a low-voltage line connection with India. We also aim to establish a high-vol­tage link between Myanmar and India in the future.

What are the new and emerging opportunities in the power transmission segment?

In renewables, offshore wind energy is a new opportunity. To have 500 GW of renewable energy capacity, we have to


enter niche areas. Our transmission system is at par with that of any other country in the world. Offshore wind presents an opportunity for the transmission sector. The Government of India is first trying to explore the coasts of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, where the wind energy po­tential is very high. We expect offshore wind energy transmission in the next five years. Furthermore, for  interconnections with Singapore, Sri Lanka or the Andaman & Nicobar Islan­ds, we still do not have a domestic submarine cable manufacturer. So, it needs to be established, or we will have to de­pend on imports. Both offshore wind as well as international connections need submarine cables.